Ask The Expert: What happens when kids don’t get the best start in life?

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Anita Khanna
Director, Social Action & Community Building
Family Service Toronto

Anita Khanna is the Director of Social Action and Community Building at Family Service Toronto, a United Way-supported agency that helps promote the health and well-being of children and families. She’s also the national coordinator of Campaign 2000, a cross-Canada coalition that works to build awareness and support for ending child poverty. Imagine a City spoke with Anita for our ‘Ask the Expert’ series to learn what happens when kids don’t get the best start in life.

1. What sort of supports do children require in order to get the best start in life?

Prenatal programs, access to nutritious food, a stable home environment and opportunities to develop language, cognitive and social skills are just some of the supports that help children start life on a high note. Community connections are also important. From a very young age, children pick up on whether their families are reflected and respected in their community. Whether a family is racialized, Indigenous, are newcomers, LGBTQ+ or led by single parents, they need to be appreciated and accepted.

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2. How important are the early years (ages 0-6) when it comes to childhood development?

The early years are the most important time in our life for brain development, learning, behaviour and health. These years are crucial to a child’s future wellbeing, self-esteem and physical and mental health. Spending quality time with family, one-on-one interaction with caregivers and educators in childcare settings, stimulating learning opportunities and affirmation of one’s value are vital in laying a solid foundation.
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3. Across Canada, nearly 1 in 5 children—and their families—lives below the poverty line. How does poverty create gaps, or inequities, when it comes to the early years?

Side effects of poverty related to inadequate or unsafe housing, stress within a household and a lack of proper nutrition have a major impact on a child’s health, as well as their performance in school. If a child moves from school to school because of an unstable housing situation or because their parents are precariously employed, it puts a lot of stress on the child.

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4. What are some of the lasting effects across a child’s life-span when they don’t get the best start in life?

Limited access to stimulating learning opportunities can delay literacy and vocabulary development. Disruptions in school may occur because a child is unable to focus because of poor nutrition. Both of these scenarios can lead to lower levels of education and can be precursors to having difficulty securing work as an adult. Constant stress can also lead to long-term physical and mental health conditions. Not only can these issues persist into adulthood, but sometimes they can never be undone.
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5. What role can the non-profit sector play in ensuring children (including those living in poverty) get the best start in life?

The non-profit sector plays a vital role in helping children get a strong start in life. Creative play and literacy programs, as well as after school supports are often the first things that come to mind, however, wide-ranging supports for families are also important. Employment programs, parent groups and newcomer settlement supports can help families find more solid footing, helping to address core issues they face as a result of living on a low income. Non-profits are nimble and close to the ground and we should ensure community members have a voice in shaping programming. We should also keep track of emerging trends and requests from the community to help shape our services and inform our advocacy for social justice. It is important that we raise our voices to talk about policy and program changes that can improve the lives of the families we work with every day.

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6. How can investing in children make an important, lasting impact on the social, economic and physical wellbeing of our community?

Children are sponges that reflect the environment they’re in, and as the next generation of thinkers, workers and creators a lot is riding on their well-being. Activities that boost confidence and encourage problem solving help kids develop important skills and confidence. When we foster those skills, and adequately support their families through smart public policies, we help build children up for success. Ultimately, healthier children grow into healthier adults. Investing in children’s well-being and reducing poverty is a foundational investment in strengthening our communities and our country.

Ask the Expert: Can we end poverty?

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Daniyal Zuberi
RBC Chair & Associate Professor of Social Policy, 
University of Toronto

Daniyal Zuberi is the RBC Chair and Associate Professor of Social Policy at the Factor-Inwentash Faculty of Social Work and School of Public Policy & Governance at the University of Toronto. In 2015, he was elected to the College of New Scholars, Artists and Scientists of the Royal Society of Canada. He was previously the William Lyon Mackenzie King Research Fellow at Harvard University. His innovative social policy research has made important contributions to the study of urban poverty, inequality, health, education, employment and social welfare. He has authored three books and other publications that examine the impact of public policy on vulnerable and disadvantaged populations in Canada and the United States. Imagine a City spoke with Daniyal for our ‘Ask the Expert’ series to provide a big-picture lens on poverty across North America. 

1. What are some of the common drivers that contribute to poverty across North America, whether in Winnipeg or Washington?

adsc_5343Poverty in North America is multi-faceted, affecting many individuals, families, and communities. The real cause of poverty is the lack of income. Many people are working longer and harder simply to tread water, living only one or two missed paycheques away from major financial hardship. With the explosion of precarious employment, too many households struggle to balance work and family life requirements as individuals take on multiple jobs to make ends meet and deal with the stress and anxiety of supporting their families. A job is no longer enough and they struggle as the “working poor” trying to find affordable housing and childcare for their families.  For those unable to find work, they receive very limited support. Most of these individuals can’t access employment insurance benefits due to program restrictions. They join tens of thousands of others on wait lists for housing assistance and subsidized childcare as well as heavily-subscribed charitable programs such as food banks. Instead of helping and enabling these individuals and families, we trap them in poverty, failing to provide the training, support and education they need to upgrade their skills and find secure living-wage employment.

2. Discuss the recent U.S. election and how it has put a spotlight on the growing issue of rising income inequality.

The failure to adequately address the growing insecurity experienced by all too many North American households is one cause of the unexpected election outcome in the United States. Most of the economic gains over the past several decades have flowed exclusively to those at the top, especially in the U.S. Growing economic insecurity threatens social cohesion and people react to fears that their fortunes have stagnated, or that they’re falling behind. Countries that are more equal, or those with narrower income gaps, have much higher social development outcomes. Life expectancy is longer, infant mortality is lower, there is greater social trust, lower crime and incarceration rates, less mental illness and better health and educational outcomes. Importantly, there is also more equality of opportunity. One of the best ways to address growing inequalities is to support those struggling at the bottom of the socioeconomic hierarchy.

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3. How have changing labour market conditions, including precarious employment, impacted poverty?

The changing labour market is a major contributor to growing poverty in North America. With a shift away from manufacturing to the service sector in a globalized economy, we’ve seen a rapid expansion of precarious employment including poverty wage, part-time, and insecure jobs that fail to lift individuals and families above the poverty line. Our employment protections and social welfare policies have failed to evolve to protect people from poverty in this new economy. When hours are cut or workers are laid off, many can’t receive support from employment insurance because they haven’t worked enough hours to qualify. It’s important to note that these changes do not affect all workers equally. Women and racialized minorities, especially new immigrants, are the most likely to work in these precarious jobs. They’re forced to make impossible tradeoffs between working extra hours, but spending more on childcare, paying for rent or food. This is true in both Canada and the United States.

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4. Discuss the changing nature of poverty in North America and how it differs in urban, suburban and rural contexts.

Poverty exists in cities, rural areas, and suburban areas. Many of the causes and consequences of poverty in these three contexts are similar, but important differences also exist. For example, poor individuals and families in the suburbs are less visible. In Vaughan, a wealthy area in York Region, we see “hidden homelessness” where people are doubled or even tripled up living in other people’s basements. In suburban and rural areas, there are also problems with social isolation that also include greater challenges in terms of accessing transportation for services and employment opportunities. But the urban poor face some unique challenges too. Especially if high housing costs force them to live in stigmatized areas with high concentrations of poverty, where transit is less accessible, less frequent, and of poor quality. While it may be easier to access services for individuals living in urban neighbourhoods, living in a high poverty urban neighbourhood can also it make more difficult for a person to successfully obtain employment as a result of discrimination on the basis of ethnicity and postal code. It can also require coping with more challenges including violence and schools that lack resources to address the major challenges facing their student populations. Fundamentally, in urban, suburban and rural contexts, poverty comes down to a lack of resources.

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5. Is there a single, best way to tackle poverty? If not, what are some common solutions we should be working towards?

No, I don’t think there’s a single solution. We need to continue to promote proactive policies and programs to prevent poverty and support struggling individuals and families. For example, we can raise social assistance rates to bring those households up above the poverty line. Expanding access to high-quality early childhood education will increase maternal employment and incomes by sending more mothers into the workplace, generating greater tax revenue and also reducing poverty. The research is clear that “housing first” and harm reduction approaches are far more effective than punitive measures to address problems such as homelessness and addiction. The latter results in an extremely expensive, reactive system where we end up spending more than required for policing, incarceration, hospitalization, and shelter services. We also need to focus on issues like raising the minimum wage, addressing a growing mental health crisis and providing individuals, including youth, with the training and support they need to find good jobs. Solutions at the local level are also important and include investments in high quality transit and community infrastructure. These include things like community hubs and health centres, parks, and community gardens that can really improve the quality of life for people in low-income neighbourhoods. These programs, along with significant policy reforms, could work together to reduce poverty quite dramatically.

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6. What is the role of the non-profits like United Way in mitigating the effects of poverty?

We have a healthy and vibrant social services sector. We need to continue to build on that and expand it. United Way and other organizations do great work in providing services and supports for vulnerable and at-risk populations. United Way does a particularly great job of raising awareness of important issues like precarious employment through its research. It also brings together coalitions to mobilize, to advocate for policy reforms and new programs and to fundamentally address some of the root causes of poverty with the goal of eradicating it.

7. Can we end poverty?

Absolutely, yes. Fundamentally we have to understand that we can end poverty if we have the political will. There are many places in the world—including Scandinavian countries—that have largely eliminated poverty. But it’s still extremely rare. Canada has done a lot more in terms of supporting those living on a low income and reducing poverty compared to the United States where we’ve seen a lot of cutbacks and a really rapid increase in deep poverty. Although there is a long way to go, I don’t think we should ever lose hope. I think, in fact, this is an important reminder why this work is so tremendously important. We can’t stop fighting to improve the quality of life for people living in poverty.  One of my friends is a congressman in the United States and he recently sent out an email with Dr. Martin Luther King’s message: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”

Ask the Expert: What’s the best way to equip youth for the future?

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Christine Walsh
Associate Dean & Professor, Faculty of Social Work
University of Calgary

Christine Walsh is Associate Dean and professor in the Faculty of Social Work at the University of Calgary. She is considered a leading expert on vulnerable youth, including young people living in poverty. Her research interests include child and family health, Aboriginal health and individuals affected by social exclusion, poverty and homelessness. Prior to academia, she also worked as a clinical social worker at McMaster Children’s Hospital in Hamilton, Ont. Imagine a City spoke with Christine for our “Ask the Expert” series to understand the best way to equip youth for the future.

1. United Way is committed to ensuring the success of young people, particularly those youth who face ‘barriers.’ Describe some of these barriers.  

Vulnerable youth are those who face barriers that prevent them from achieving or maintaining well-being. They’re vulnerable because of personal, social and structural factors, such as a lack of family support, stable housing or access to education. These factors not only affect their physical and mental health, but greatly influence their ability to contribute to society.dsc_5334

2. What are some of the contributing factors to vulnerability?

Things like family breakdown, poverty, racism, violence, childhood trauma and physical and mental health issues are significant contributing factors to youth vulnerability. Newcomers or LGBTQ+ youth also experience many challenges including social isolation. These types of barriers make it extremely difficult for young people to excel in school, find stable employment or connect with their communities, making it much harder for them to succeed.

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3. Why is the transition from adolescence to adulthood often so difficult for young people who face barriers?

Transitioning from youth to adulthood is challenging for all young people, but it’s especially tough for those who face barriers such as poverty and different forms of violence. Attaining an education, entering the workforce and establishing financial independence are key components of becoming an adult. Unfortunately, many youth simply don’t have access to the supports they need to successfully transition into this life stage. To cope with these challenges, youth are vulnerable to high-risk behaviours like alcohol and drug use, which can lead to longer-term consequences such as becoming street-involved or even homeless. These long-term health issues can also have implications on our justice system and health and social services sectors.

4. Why is it so important to invest in youth during this critical transition period into independent adulthood?

Many of the decisions made, and the opportunities that are available or lacking during the transition into adulthood, have long-term impacts on a person’s future. That’s why it’s so important to address vulnerability during this time. If a young person lacks the supports they need to finish school, adequately prepare for the workforce or find affordable, stable housing, then that’s going to impact the rest of their life.dsc_6965

5. What are some of the best ways to support youth facing barriers to build brighter futures?

Community supports are one critical piece of helping young people thrive. These supports include things like mental health counseling, career workshops and mentorship programs that can enable young people to change trajectories, even helping them acquire the tools necessary to break the cycle of poverty. It’s these type of what we call ‘wraparound’ supports  that are so crucial to ensuring youth have access to the opportunities they need to build stable, secure futures. United Way plays an important role in this because it’s embedded in the community in a really profound way. Social supports offered by community-based organizations enable youth to make good decisions throughout the developmental process. Engagement is also extremely important when it comes to young people. When we engage youth in meaningful ways, they become active participants on a personal and community level.

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6. Why does youth success matter to communities at large?

Youth, including those who face barriers, have tremendous skills and potential. When we support them, we capitalize on their talent. These young people play a vital role in society because they’re the future of our communities. They are the ones who are going to be working and raising their families here. If we want safe, healthy, livable communities where every young person feels supported to build a better life, then we need to ensure we create the conditions that allow all youth to benefit and contribute in a multitude of ways.

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Ask the Expert: Why keeping seniors social matters

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Karen Kobayashi
Research Affiliate & Associate Professor,
University of Victoria’s Institute on Aging & Lifelong Health

Karen Kobayashi is a Research Affiliate at the University of Victoria’s Institute on Aging & Lifelong Health, a multidisciplinary research centre that focuses on the needs of our country’s aging population. Also an Associate Professor in the University of Victoria’s Department of Sociology, she’s a leading expert on the relationship between social isolation and health among older adults. Imagine a City spoke with Karen for our ‘Ask the Expert’ series to learn about the importance of keeping seniors social.

1. Seniors are one of the fastest-growing populations across the country. What are some of the challenges that this dramatic growth brings?

When people reach their later years, we tend to see more significant changes in their physical and cognitive health, including problems with memory, language and judgment. An increase in the older population brings with it a greater need for supports for seniors. This doesn’t just mean improved access to health care. Programs and services to help seniors live independently and socialize—many of which are funded by United Way—are also extremely important.

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2. Research tells us that nearly 20% of seniors feel isolated. What are some of the risk factors that may influence, or exacerbate, isolation?

There are quite a few risk factors that often lead to isolation. A newcomer might lack the language or cultural knowledge to develop social networks in their community. On the other hand, someone living in poverty might not have access to the transportation they need to get to important programs and services. A person’s physical health can also greatly limit their mobility, making it difficult to leave their home, while cognitive issues might make it next to impossible for others to communicate. Lastly, it might be surprising, but your gender is another important factor. In my research, we’ve discovered that men tend to have smaller social networks than women and as a result are more likely to experience isolation.

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3. What happens if we don’t address the growing issue of seniors’ isolation?

Social isolation is linked to poorer cognitive and physical health outcomes. This could mean an increase in mental health issues like depression, anxiety, poor sleep quality or accelerated cognitive decline. This is very much a public health issue—especially considering these outcomes are more likely to contribute to seniors getting sick more often and dying sooner.

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4. What are some of the best ways to address this important issue and what are the benefits?

Maintaining strong social networks is essential for keeping seniors healthy. This is often achieved through community-based programs that put social interaction and physical activities at the forefront. This ultimately allows people that have small social networks to create their own sense of community. Programs like exercise classes, home visits and art workshops are an excellent way to maintain social well-being, which leads to better cognitive, mental and physical health. For many seniors, this means an increase in happiness, less anxiety and less depression. United Way does a really great job of ensuring these important programs are accessible in communities that really need them—whether it’s a low-income neighbourhood, a rural or remote area or an ethnic enclave, a community with a high density of one ethnocultural group.

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5. Why is seniors isolation an important social and health issue that affects everyone?

Healthy seniors contribute to healthy communities by bringing a sense of energy to a community and lending a hand in a variety of meaningful ways. One way is through volunteering. Not only can they donate their talents to helping the community at large, but they also play an important role in helping other seniors break free from isolation, too.

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Ask the Expert: How are health and poverty related?

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Kwame McKenzie
CEO, Wellesley Institute
Psychiatrist, CAMH

Kwame McKenzie is the CEO of the Wellesley Institute, a Toronto-based non-profit research and policy institute that focuses on advancing population health. Also a CAMH psychiatrist, he’s a leading expert on the social causes of mental illness and making our health system more equitable. Imagine a City spoke with Kwame for our ‘Ask the Expert’ series to learn how health and poverty are related.

1. Is there a connection between income and our health?

There’s a strong link between income and health. But, it’s not just about the amount of money you make and what you can buy, it’s what your whole life is like as a result, including where you live, work and the food that you eat. These factors—the social determinants of health—influence the health of individuals and even entire populations, putting vulnerable people at a higher risk of having poor physical and mental health and decreasing their life expectancy.

2. What are some examples of the social determinants of health?

On top of income, other factors that greatly affect our quality of life include gender, disability and race. Health is also determined by our ability to access quality education, nutritious food, adequate housing and social and health services. Another big factor is job security and working conditions.

3. How does poverty influence a person’s physical and mental health?

Living in poverty greatly impacts a person’s physical and mental health. For example, living on a low income means you’re going to be living in less adequate housing where air pollutants or mould could cause asthma. What we eat is a major indicator of our health status as well, and for many people living in poverty, accessing good, nutritious food is financially and physically not feasible. This could lead to very serious conditions such as high blood pressure, diabetes and heart disease. Precarious work is another major factor that brings with it a host of health concerns. Workers without job security often lack holidays, benefits or sick days and spend long hours commuting to work. This causes high levels of stress and anxiety as a result.

Unfortunately, all of these factors produce a vicious cycle, which both psychologically and physically makes a person more vulnerable to illness, even down to something like the flu. Once you’ve got one illness, you’re more likely to get another.

4. What are some of the best ways to address these issues to improve the well-being of Canadians?

Studies show that the healthiest people are in economies where they’ve decreased poverty, the gap between rich and poor and started really investing in people. That means ensuring access to good jobs, increasing food security and giving kids the best start in life. This last piece is especially important. Studies show a child’s resilience to both physical and mental problems is linked to the amount of face-to-face time with their parents. You can imagine how poverty has a generational impact. It produces a trajectory, which means increased risk of illness through childhood into adult life. That’s why the early years are so important. We have to make sure that children get proper nutrition and have access to child development programs and high-quality daycare to ensure kids get a good start in life.

United Way has a big hand in addressing these issues. They glue society together and make sure that people living in poverty or who are marginalized don’t fall between the cracks. It’s not glamorous, but it’s the biggest improvement we’re going to get in-house. Without United Way, all of the problems that we have with the social determinants of health and poverty would be magnified significantly.

5. Why is this an issue that affects all of us?

Healthy people can mean healthy communities, but healthy communities also breed healthy people. It’s a two-way street. Income inequality is important, because without a healthy economy and a healthy society, then people will not thrive. Ultimately, we need to focus on creating a society that’s inclusive and supportive of everyone in our community.

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