Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
April 6, 2009
Society must block 'pathways to poverty'
CANADIAN CATHOLIC NEWS
OTTAWA — The path to eradicating poverty involves building stronger families and early intervention in the lives of children born into low-income homes, said speakers at a recent conference here.
British MP Iain Duncan Smith, keynote speaker at the Social Justice and the Family conference, said most people think of solving poverty through money, but money has not addressed the “pathways to poverty.”
These pathways include educational failure, economic dependency, worklessness, financial indebtedness and family breakdown, Duncan Smith said.
Despite decades of welfare spending, social breakdown is “real, entrenched, and rising,” he said.
Poverty leads to crime and violence, poor health, and shorter life expectancy, he pointed out. Children who grow up in poverty-stricken neighbourhoods are more likely to fail in school, become drug or alcohol addicted, engage in early sexual activity, experience debt problems, unemployment and welfare dependency.
In the United Kingdom, the world’s fourth largest economy, people living in a public housing estate outside Glasgow, for example, have a lower life-expectancy than someone living on the Gaza strip — the early 50s, Duncan Smith said.
GENERATIONS OF DYSFUNCTION
In these estates or projects where most poor people live, a typical family might be comprised of a 19-year-old girl with a child 18 months old, he said. She has no job, little training.
Her mother, who is in her 30s, lives nearby and is living with a 19-year old man. She has another daughter who is pregnant with a second child and a 17-year-old son who is living with a 17-year-old girl.
All of them live within three blocks of each other and don’t get along, nor do they provide any help for each other, he said.
“Violence is a daily reality,” Duncan Smith said, noting the estates are breeding grounds for gangs.
Nearly 1.4 million children in the UK have drug or alcohol-addicted parents. Three-quarters of the families in the estates are headed by a single parent. Only 15 per cent are headed by a couple with children.
The government is “footing the bill for lifestyles,” he said, that are putting a huge strain on health services and the criminal justice system.
Duncan Smith, head of the Centre for Social Justice, said his institute is not finger-wagging or moralistic, but has been assembling data so policy decisions can be based on facts rather than ideology. “No one ever bothers to find out what works,” he said.
Programs that target single parents tend to break up two-parent relationships, he said. People are not stupid. They see that if they stay together they have to work three times as many hours to get the same benefits they would receive if they declare themselves lone parents.
Duncan Smith, who led the Conservative Party from 2001-03, urged early intervention in the lives of children of dysfunctional families, because of the importance of brain development prior to the age of three.
MOTHERS CAN SAVE THE FAMILY
Programs that target the child may save the child, he said, but programs that target the mother can save the whole family. Mothers need to learn how to nurture their children, he said, because otherwise the children’s neural pathways will be broken. They will not have the language ability to benefit from nursery school or primary school.
He stressed the importance of civil society groups that are successfully meeting some of these challenges. One is the Nurse Family Partnership that tries to save families before the child is born and while he or she is young.
Effective government works with the volunteer sector without usurping it, he said.
Vancouver family doctor Gabor Maté also highlighted the importance of early brain development and the proper cultivation of the natural desire for children and parents to attach to each other.
Working with drug addicts in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, Maté said the “addicted brain” looks different and “predates drug use.” Most were sexually or physically abused as children. One was left in the clothes dryer while his mother went out drinking.
A child needs an emotionally available, non-stressed nurturing parent in the first three years of life, he said.
The parenting environment in general has become a lot more stressed, he said. Most families now have two working parents who are “emotionally not present” for their kids.
“Basic rituals like the family meal are no longer there for children,” he said.
Human beings are programmed for attachment, and now children are becoming attached to their peers instead of their parents with disastrous consequences for society, Maté warned.
Peer attachment is producing children without moorings or self-control, he said. They are more prone to drug use, violence, early sexual activity and experience a general aimlessness.
“Parents have lost the power to parent,” he said. The brain cannot handle competing social attachments. A relationship with a child creates the authority to parent because it arises from the child’s “desire to connect with you.”
Maté criticized institutional daycare settings where studies have shown stress hormone levels in children are much higher. He preferred home-based daycares with a nurturing caregiver.
STAY-AT-HOME MOMS AND DADS
He urged policies that would help parents stay home with their children and ensure that places where children spend time are nurturing and caring.
Schools, he said, should be places of attachment.
Maté urged governments to examine the social impact of policies the same way they would do an environmental impact assessment. “We need to look at the impact on children in any social policy.”
Manning Centre for Building Democracy Fellow John Williamson suggested policies like income splitting for couples with one stay-at-home parent, employment insurance reform to extend maternity benefits an additional year. He also advocated repealing the benefits for common law couples, so that marriage would be rewarded and encouraged.