Yet many believe that families are managing fine without this type of program, and are concerned about who will pay for it. Not all children are managing. Most provinces determine children’s readiness for school learning during kindergarten using the Early Development Instrument (EDI). Kindergarten teachers use the EDI to assess children on scales related to their social, emotional, cognitive and physical development. Country-wide data shows that more than one in four children arrive at kindergarten with vulnerabilities that make them more likely to fail in school.25 Children who have trouble coping in kindergarten are less likely to graduate from high school or go on to post-secondary education. As adults they are more likely to fail in their personal relationships and have difficulties finding steady work. They are also more likely to become sick, addicted or depressed. Poverty increases children’s chances of delayed development, but it is not the only factor. Most vulnerable kids do not dwell in poverty; they live in middle-and upper-income households and neighbourhoods.26
Researchers and policy makers often argue that public investment in early childhood education should be reserved for children from disadvantaged homes. The problem is that programs for poor people become poor programs. A recent study found that early learning classrooms comprised of about 60 percent of children from low-income homes were rated significantly lower in quality indicators of teaching, teacher–child interaction and provisions for learning than classrooms with fewer low-income children.27
Conversely, a British study found that children from poor families who went to preschool with middle class children did better than those who were educated in social and economic isolation.28 The same result was found in a study of Georgia’s universal preschool program. On reading and math tests, poor children did best in socially mixed classes.29 Poor children face a string of disadvantages that middle class children may not confront, but there is still room for concern. The learning gap between middle income children and those born to the wealthy is just as big as the gap that separates low-income children from the middle class. Middle class children, particularly boys,30 drop out of school at alarming rates and with lifelong consequences.31 In addition, income does not inoculate children against learning disabilities or less than ideal home lives.
Why are so many children, even those in well-off families, facing such limited opportunities? Because, for the first time in modern history, the old are taking wealth and opportunity away from the young. “Canadians sit idly, ignoring that young families have household incomes that are little better than four decades ago; all the while housing, the primary source of wealth for Boomers today, is the primary source of debt for the Squeeze Generation,” writes Paul Kershaw of the University of British Columbia in the Vancouver Sun. He coined the moniker to describe this generation of families with children who are working more, caring more and getting less.32 Just having children puts couples at a 40 percent risk of poverty. Lone-parents have a one in two chance of being poor.
Children make good political props; no campaign exists without a handful of healthy and diverse child models gracing its platform. Yet children are absent from public priorities. Health care, which overwhelmingly benefits seniors, sucks up an increasing portion of social spending. Meanwhile the Boomers—the wealthiest cohort of all—clamour for tax cuts, giving away governments’ capacity to help their children and grandchildren. Social transfers traditionally used to curb the excesses of the market now exacerbate the problem. Health care pays out five times more to a senior than to a child.33 Over the past three decades, the share of overall social spending on children has declined, while seniors have enjoyed continuous increases for their programs.34
Next: 6. Democracy in trouble
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