Government investment in Canadian children and families “worrisome”, expert says

Gail Johnson, Georgia Straight

Canada invests a lot in children’s recovery from illness but not enough in their ongoing health, according to health-policy consultant Steven Lewis. The Saskatoon-based analyst, who is also an adjunct professor at SFU, will make his case at an upcoming talk that he hopes will help prompt business, government, and public leaders make urgent changes—without which our kids and our economy will suffer.

“Canada is a generous society in terms of health care, and if you’re a child with an acute condition, you’re going to get as good care as anywhere in the world,” Lewis tells the Straight on the line from his Saskatchewan office. “But on the children’s-development side, how do we as a nation do in, say, eliminating child poverty and in making sure all kids have a good start in life,  social support, and high-quality childcare? When it comes to social investment in children and their families, we’re not so good.

“And this isn’t good for kids and it’s not good for the economy or society as a whole.”…

“Certain neoconservative trends seep their way into Canada, and some children are among the victims,” he says. “We need to revisit our overall policy in the sense of where we distribute our social capital. We are so heavily focused on downstream health care that I think we have neglected the broader social investments and determinants of health….We have taxes to repair physical infrastructure but we keep incurring these long-term liabilities and don’t make sound, up-front investments which would eliminate the need for future expenses, like incarceration.”..

Other factors come into play, including the ever-increasing cost of postsecondary education and the relatively poor wages generally paid to child-care workers. “We’re quite happy to see people who look after our cars get paid more than those who look after our kids,” Lewis says. “It really matters what the quality of daycare is.”

Lewis points to northern European countries as ones that are doing well when it comes to providing kids of all backgrounds a decent start in life. “Based on all of the indicators, those countries just do better,” he says. “Literacy rates are higher, postsecondary-education rates are higher, high-school graduation rates are higher, and crime is lower.

“If you really want to reduce the number and proportion of children who grow up in poverty and who, by the ages of five to 13, start to fall off the rails lead a life that is unlikely to be highly successful on any grounds, you really need to have a comprehensive and generous…support system that will intervene as early as possible, identify families at risk, and do whatever it takes to help kids get to school, stay in school, be fed, and get help when they’re struggling academically.

“People have a lot more sympathy spending on children than spending on families, but kids live in families,” he adds. “If that environment isn’t thriving, it doesn’t matter if you have free lunch at school or an hour tutor after school; you’ve got to help families overcome dysfunction as well.” …

If decision makers aren’t swayed by the plea to help disadvantaged people, Lewis says, maybe they’ll be convinced that tangible change is necessary, and fast, because of the economic implications.

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