Almost a third of the babies in Manitoba are born into low-income homes, a troubling statistic given the trickle-down effect of poverty on success at school, health and job prospects. The fact that a huge chunk of the population faces a dismal future has critical, long-term economic implications for this province.
The problem is more complicated than money, but financial support to those living at or below the poverty line is crucial. That's because poorer families are in high stress, and that affects children's cognitive and physical development.
Children and Youth Minister Kevin Chief recently stressed the wealth of research that shows a child's chances of succeeding in life begin in utero and in the first years. In 2001, the NDP began the Healthy Baby program, targeting low-income pregnant women. But the program seems to have produced very modest gains.
A 2010 study by the Manitoba Centre for Health Policy found 29 per cent of the 56,560 babies born between 2004 and 2007 were born to mothers with less than $32,000 in income. Almost all of them were living on less than $22,000, which is below the poverty line.
Manitoba's Healthy Baby gives financial help to low-income pregnant women and offers all new moms nutrition and health programs.
The MCHP's analysis found 16,540 women received the monthly benefit over the four years, but a fraction -- just more than 6,000 -- took the counselling support. The highest take-up was in the poorest urban neighbourhoods. (The numbers don't include First Nations reserves, where programs are federal.)
The MCHP's study showed the program was associated with few gains across the indicators of child health analyzed. The bright spots were in improved prenatal care (11 per cent) and breastfeeding (20 per cent), specifically for low-income moms. Smaller gains were seen in reducing the number of babies born before due date or of low birth weight.
The centre has a trove of evidence about the risks of growing up poor. High proportions of children from low-income neighbourhoods begin failing at school by Grade 3 and drop out in large numbers. There is significant overlap of children living on welfare, being born to teen moms and in contact with child welfare.
These kids become young adults who are more likely to be on welfare, have addictions and be involved in crime. As they age, they are prone to chronic diseases and die younger.
That a third of Manitoba's babies are born to low-income homes is ominous for a province struggling with a skilled-labour shortage. The trickle-down extends beyond the welfare rolls: A straight line can be drawn between Manitoba's high rate of poverty and its escalating health, education and corrections budgets.
Too many children are being born to teen moms. Some 50 per cent of the moms who received financial support from Healthy Baby had their first babies as teenagers, an indication of the enduring effect of poverty. Having a teen mother is a significant factor in risk to a child. That gives some insight into why the number of kids in care of child welfare agencies, 85 per cent of them aboriginal, has almost doubled to 9,800 in the last decade.
Marni Brownell, lead author of the study, rightly notes the gains for the relative few babies in the provincial program hold significant payback in their healthy development, a worthy investment given the substantial economic costs of children who fail to succeed.
A real weakness may be the program's paltry financial incentive -- a maximum $81 monthly to the poorest moms-to-be can barely dent the cost of good food and housing. That hasn't increased since 2001 and the program's $4.5-million total budget will not rise this year.
Study after study has shown the stress of poverty weighs on a child's future health, education and employment. Manitoba needs to get serious about relieving that stress in vulnerable homes. The solution doesn't turn on a monthly benefit, but that pittance is a powerful symbol of the priority the government places on targeting children at risk.