Welfare reforms have made no substantial difference to the development of Canadian pre-school children living in poverty, according to a new University of Alberta study.
While the study confirmed previous research findings that impoverished children do better developmentally when their family income comes from the labour market rather than from social assistance, the University of Alberta study also showed that the school readiness of pre-school children living in poverty did not improve at all after the introduction of welfare reforms in the mid-1990s, said study author Dr. Deanna Williamson, professor of human ecology.
"It suggests that mandatory welfare-to-work initiatives that were implemented are not sufficient to improve the development of these children," Dr. Williamson said. "Poverty itself matters at least as much as the parents' source of income."
Results from the study are printed in the March issue of Journal of Children & Poverty.
Pointing to possible factors that contribute to differences in school readiness by family income status, the study also found that family environment scores for low-income families were worse than for non-poor families: mothers in low-income families had lower levels of education, were less healthy, and had higher depressive symptom scores than non-poor families. In addition, low-income families had less effective family functioning. But, after adjusting for these factors, low income still had an independent effect on the children, Williamson noted.
Williamson's study, based on data collected in 1994/95 and 1998/99 as part of Statistics Canada's National Longitudinal Survey of Children and Youth, showed that both before and after mandatory welfare-to-work programs were introduced in Canada in the mid-1990s, pre-school children in poverty, regardless of their income source, had lower school-readiness scores than peers who lived above the poverty line.
As well, the study showed that by the end of the 90s, those scores had not improved, even though a greater percentage of the 1998/99 group (52 per cent) than the 1994/95 group (46 per cent) lived in families whose main income source was through employment.
In both 94/95 and 98/99, pre-school children in low-income families had a mean score of 94, six points lower than the expected standard of 100. Only children living in families with incomes at least double the poverty line had school-readiness scores above the expected standard, with a score of 104 in 94/95 and 102 in 98/99.
Government social policies have to focus on more than getting people off of welfare, Dr. Williamson said.
"There is a lot of room for improvement in other factors that contribute to poverty, such as very low social assistance incomes and inadequate minimum wages. Until social policies lead to significant reductions in family poverty, it is unlikely that lives of Canadian children in poverty will improve."