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Unraveling threads: Socio-economic policies and the well-being of children

The Covid-19 pandemic has woven a massive knot in the tapestry of our collective lived experiences. Of particular concern, are the youngest citizens, the “under fives,” as every aspect of this pandemic and its impact on their lives (lay-offs experienced by mom and/or dad, school closures and, social distancing and isolation), are antithetical to the healthy development and well-being of children. In this blog, I will highlight major "threads" that merit careful attention and need to be unraveled. I argue for policy inputs that need to be carefully woven to secure the developmental well-being of young children in the months to come, as life normalizes. In the reference section below I provide the research data sets upon which my reflection and arguments are built.

While many focus narrowly on the home environment as the first ecological nucleus for children’s development, the home is largely influenced by the socio-economic milieu operative in a city, state/province and nation. Poverty and, by extension, the socio-economic background of families are salient factors in the quality of the home life. Poverty manifests itself in various ways and impacts children’s lives adversely. Examples of these effects on the life of a young child include: malnutrition, growth stunting, poorer physical health, lower cognitive ability (that leads to disruptive behavioural and attending skills, and reduced academic achievement), stress impacting emotional and mental well-being and stability, school absenteism, less access to structural and social supports, less resources in the home for education and lower quality of parental interaction with children and less parental attention, unfulfilled potential, a low quality of life. In Canada, approximately 20% of children live at poverty line. The impact of Covid-19 is yet to be determined.

The measure for poverty and low income refers to the threshold of monies spent on the basic necessities to survive such as housing, food and utilities. Young families struggling to cover the basics, will have little to invest in additional educational, health, recreation, and other important child well-being and development supports and opportunities for the accumulation of cultural, intellectual and social capital. While “insufficient morality” (bad choices in life) and “meritocracy” (lack of hard work) are the primary arguments used against the poor, the lack of economic growth and human capital development are in fact the greater factors. In the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, a new economic reality is giving rise to a down-ward spiral of the economic well-being of families. Many families are staring into an economic abyss. Government bailout efforts are also trajecting an incredibly unfavourable prospect for our country’s economic sustainability and growth in the future. Our youngest children are carrying future debt even as they bear the consequences of economic hardship today.

The sentimental banner of the pandemics’ positive outcome in bringing families closer together and society’s general realization of what is important is now being waved. This idealized romantic honeymoon will be short-lived. Unfortunately, positive outcomes aren’t realized for everyone and certainly, while healthy attachment may be attained for some children, other general developmental and educational outcomes will not. Children under five cannot live in the online social space, nor continue their learning and development online as older children and adults can during this time. Furthermore, not every family affords a home economy, especially not those who have been laid-off, that would allow the allocation of financial resources for educational or play materials in the home. Nor do families have the expertise in facilitating a comprehensive developmentally appropriate program of quality in the home, as well-intentioned as they may be. The entire enterprise of social distancing is antithetical to the field of early childhood development. Children’s optimal development is subject to bio-ecological and socio-cultural influences- the interactions with family and society at large based on child development principles and pedagogical processes supporting cognitive, socio-emotional, physical, visual motor growth. Completing a craft at home together every day is simply not enough.

Furthermore, we can expect verbal, emotional and physical abuse in the home to rise due to stress and mental health issues brought on by the pandemic’s challenges at this time. The trauma and impact of this toxic stress on children’s brain, coupled with the socio-economic challenges some may already be facing due to poverty, will forward a decline in the general well-being and development of our society’s very young. The impending economic hardship in the months to come has the potential of forcing families to withdraw from educational and recreational investment and therefore not prioritize early education and development as they once did. Children with any visual, motor, speech and language, or cognitive delays will not be supported through programming or therapy. This potential future decrease in early education and development support will exert a downward push on children’s educational attainment with adverse effects on their career advancement and social mobility.

The socio-economic backgrounds of children are an important variable for academic achievement, and for young children, early development and skill sets at school entry correlate strongly with academic achievement, and this impacts their long-term school trajectory. Duncan et al. (2007) conducted the most extensive non-experimental assessment across six longitudinal data sets measuring the associations between school-entry achievement, attention and behavior and later academic achievement. The results indicate three salient school entry skill categories predictive of later success: reading, math and attention. Children entering kindergarten with formal rudimentary reading, math and better attention skills are poised to succeed in formal schooling. These skills are linked to both cognitive and socio-emotional capacities. Conversely, children who enter schooling with less optimal health, cognitive, social and behavioural developmental outcomes in the early years are less likely to realize educational attainments once they enter primary school.

Canada prioritizes a social-investment framework in its child welfare policy efforts. A main socio-economic policy objective over the past few years has been to procure cash transfers through the Child Benefit program. In recent years, a slight reduction of the child poverty rate in Canada can be noted as a result. Policy inputs such as cash incentives (or child benefits), unless significant and targeted, do not necessarily effect greater educational outcomes for children. While middle and upper-middle class families will naturally invest in their children, lower income families will prioritize differently. In the seminal work by Lareau (2011) titled “Unequal Childhoods,” the vast educational and developmental pathway differences, and thus differential career and social mobility, are outlined in greater detail.

At this time and in the short term, our collective efforts should be on advocacy of socio-economic policies that prioritize a functional growth market, entrepreneurship and stimulate new areas of economic activity. Coupled with this effort is the need to incentivize input-based policies for human and intellectual capital investment in the labour market through upskilling efforts. Another area for attention is social innovation solutions to the many societal challenges that are sure to reverberate. Social innovation in the early childhood education sector will require systems coordination and possible public and private partnerships to maintain the industry viable and centered on solutions that will meet the needs of young children and families. The current unemployment and the trajectory of poverty hamper a country’s capacity to sustain economic growth. Over the long term, policy inputs in Canada will need to prioritize a high value added economy, diversification and innovation for its competitiveness in the global market. In the short and long term, economic disadvantage and unemployment place the greatest strain on families, and impact negatively on the overall development of young children, particularly those children from low income families who are now hardest hit.


Barnett, S. (1991). Developing preschool education policy: An economic perspective. In Weis, L. et al. (Eds.). Critical Perspectives on Early Childhood Education (p. 211-233). Albany: State University of New York Press.

Barnett, W.S. (1998). Long-term cognitive and academic effects of early childhood education on children in poverty. Preventive Medicine, 27, p. 204-207.

Bradley, R.H. and Corwyn, R.F. (2002). Socioeconomic status and child development. Annual Review of Psychology, 53, p. 371-399.

Brooks-Gunn, J., & Duncan, G. (1997). The Effects of Poverty on Children. The Future of Children, 7(2), 55-71.

The Conference Board of Canada (2013). Working Age Poverty.

Duncan, G., Dowsett, C., Classens, A., Magnusen, K, Huston, A., Klebanov, P., Pagani, L., Feinstein, L., Engel, M., Brooks-Gunn, J., Sexton, H., Duckworth, K. and Japel, C. (2007). School readiness and later achievement. Developmental Psychology, 43(6), p. 1428-1448.

OECD, Combating Poverty and Social Exclusion through Work, Policy Brief (Paris: OECD, 2005).

Ready, D. (2010). Socioeconomic disadvantage, school Attendance, and early cognitive development: The differential effects of school exposure. Sociology of Education, 83 (4), p. 271-286.

Rothstein, R. (2013). Why children from lower socio-economic classes, on average, have lower academic achievement than middle-class children. In Carter, P. and Welner, K. (Eds.). Closing the opportunity gap: What America must do to give every child an even chance (p. 59-74). New York: Oxford University Press.

Ryan, R., Fauth, R. and Brooks-Gunn, J. (2006). Childhood Poverty: Implications for school readiness and early childhood education. In Spodek, B. and Saracho, O. (Eds.). Handbook of research on the education of young children, (p. 323-346). Mahwah: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Yeung, W.J., Linver, M.R. and Brookes-Gunn, J. (2002). How money matters for young children’s development: Parental investment and family processes. Child Development, 73 (6), p. 1861-1879.

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