Fresh voice stirs up poverty debate

TheStar.com – Opinion – Fresh voice stirs up poverty debate
May 22, 2009.   Carol Goar

Economist Claire de Oliveira thinks children growing up in poverty could use some old-fashioned paternalism.

She has just written a paper for the C.D. Howe Research Institute urging policy-makers to shift their emphasis from raising the incomes of poor families to providing disadvantaged children with child care, school breakfasts and lunches and access to medical professionals.

More money will have a modest impact on the health and well-being of children, de Oliveira says, whereas proper nourishment and a stimulating preschool environment can directly affect their development and raise the nation’s productivity.

What governments should aim to do is “alter the poor’s consumption behaviour,” she says. “I find little support for the proposal that cash transfers alone are an efficient way to improve children’s health.”

Good Health for All is de Oliveira’s first foray into the realm of public policy. She joined the C.D. Howe Institute as a research fellow this spring, after completing her PhD in economics at McMaster University.

If the objective of her 13-page paper is to stir up debate, it will certainly do that.

Anti-poverty activists will find it regressive.

They have fought for decades for a basic income that allows parents to pay the rent, feed their children and buy household necessities. Now that they’ve finally begun to make inroads, de Oliveira is reviving the stereotype of the bad welfare mom, the irresponsible dad and the neglected kids.

Conservative economists will find it puzzling.

They have shown in study after study that governments are much more efficient at distributing cash than providing publicly funded goods and services. De Oliveira’s prescriptions run counter to the professional consensus.

The Ontario government will find it ill-timed.

The C.D. Howe paper comes five months after the release of Premier Dalton McGuinty’s poverty reduction strategy. It implies that the centrepiece of his plan – an enriched Ontario Child Benefit – is misguided.

De Oliveira seemed surprised by the suggestion that her thesis might be regarded with disfavour at Queen’s Park. She supports Ontario’s poverty reduction strategy, she stressed. Her only goal was to offer the government advice about the best use of public funds.

She also appeared unaware that paternalism is a loaded term for low-income parents. It implies that they are incapable of responsible choices. That was never her intention, de Oliveira insisted. She merely sought to identify the most effective policy tools to help their children.

What she lacks in experience, the young economist makes up for with the quality and freshness of her research.

She refutes the widely held assumption that low-income children outgrow their early health problems. By tracking their medical records from birth to 15 years – and filtering out factors such as race, ethnicity and family type – she demonstrates that poor kids continue to lag behind their more affluent peers into adolescence.

On the other hand, she backs two arguments children’s advocates have been making for a long time. The first is that early learning is vital. The second is that childhood nutrition is too important to leave to the vagaries of the marketplace.

Familiar as these notions are in social policy circles, they are seldom advanced by business-sponsored think-tanks such as the C.D. Howe Institute. To its clientele, the idea of investing in low-income children to bolster future economic growth is still new.

There is room for everyone in this debate. No voice deserves to be silenced. No proposal is too naive, outdated or inopportune to be dismissed without discussion.

In recent years, there hasn’t been much controversy about how to lift children out of poverty. A bit of passion would be a nice change.

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