What will the election mean for Canada's kids?

June 4, 2004

With a federal campaign on, promises are flying faster than the puck at a playoff game. Most recently, Paul Martin pledged several billion dollars for child care over the next five years. This isn't the first time federal Liberals have promised major action on child care. Canada's kids deserve a government that will deliver.

Over the last decade, the early childhood period (from birth to age 5) has gained a public profile and some government recognition. A National Children's Agenda was agreed to in the late 1990s, and since then there have been modest increases in federal-provincial transfer payments. While some important baby steps have been taken, we're still a long way from a comprehensive early childhood development strategy.

Yet there is now an impressive body of evidence showing that early childhood development affects health, wellbeing, academic achievement, and competence for the rest of a person's life. We know that a child's development is strongly influenced by the day-to-day qualities of the environments where he or she grows up, lives, and learns. We also know that stark inequalities in child development emerge over the first five years of life. These inequalities are related to a range of factors, including family income and education, parenting style, neighbourhood safety and income level, and access to quality child care programs.

In other words, families do not operate on their own. Children who grow up in safe and close-knit communities do better, in general, than those from dangerous and socially fragmented neighbourhoods. Access to quality child care and developmental programs and services provides important benefits for all Canadian children. This means that society is involved in early child development, whether we want to address our role or not.

Publicly, we spend more than $6,000 per child on K-12 education. But we spend less than one-sixth of this amount between birth and 5 years. This cutoff point makes no sense, and the lack of adequate public funding for early childhood development (ECD) should be a central election issue.

A recent initiative in Vancouver measured kindergarten children's readiness for school in three areas of child development that have a long-term impact on health, well-being and school success. The results of this study were mapped at the neighbourhood level, postal code-by-postal code.

What emerged is a comprehensive picture of Vancouver as an environment for early childhood development, rich in insights as to what we, as a community, should address in order to improve the life chances of our youngest citizens. The insights from Vancouver are relevant to communities across the country.

Although the study indicated that the highest developmental risk is found in the poorest neighbourhoods in town, the largest number of children at risk is found more thinly spread across Vancouver's middle class neighbourhoods. About 20% of Vancouver's vulnerable children live in the three 'high risk' neighbourhoods, while the other 80% were spread across the rest of the city.

If the purpose of an early childhood development strategy is to give all kids a better chance in life and reduce social inequality, then a strategy to provide universal access to the conditions that support healthy child development is crucial.

Vancouver has a variety of child care centres and child development programs, but funding levels are low, programs are unstable, neighbourhood accessibility varies and the mix of programs is ad hoc. Licensed child care is hard to find in areas where parents have the least education -- where children would benefit from it the most. Equalizing access to quality care child is a vital part of an effective early child development strategy. It should be a top priority for those in control of the purse strings.

The Vancouver study also tells us that children whose family backgrounds might put them at risk, but who live in mixed-income neighbourhoods, tend to do better than their counterparts in low-income neighbourhoods. In other words, mixed neighbourhoods lead to lower levels of developmental vulnerability than economically segregated poor neighbourhoods. This confirms the need for policies that build diversity, such as more social housing spread across our cities.

Some progress has been made at the federal level. The recognition of child care by the federal government as a cornerstone of early childhood development and promises of increased funding are a good start. But it is only a start. What we need is a long-term commitment, across all levels of government, to build a system of publicly-funded, universal access to opportunities for development, learning and care so that all Canadian children have a fair chance at school and life success. And we need to ensure that the politicians who make it to Ottawa this month are prepared to make that commitment.

Dr. Clyde Hertzman is a Canada Research Chair in Population Health and Human Development, Director of the Human Early Learning Partnership of BC, and a Research Associate of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives.