Amid an orgy of holiday giving, and a great deal of kind-hearted charity towards those less fortunate, it's time to take a closer look at what actually changes the lives of children who face the biggest challenges. The best advice I can give is that there must be a little something for everyone, but more for those who have the least. That's not crazy communist psychobabble or new age liberalism. It's what research has shown makes our communities better, safer places for all of us to live in.
Let me give an example. Maria del Carmen Huerta, an social policy analyst with the OECD, shows through her work comparing the wellbeing of children around the world that it is almost always sole parent families who are hit hardest by the birth of a child. They are far more likely to drop quickly into poverty than two parent families. Her point is that countries that spend more on child support programs, like subsidized childcare, maternity leave, and education and health care for poor families, have higher maternal employment rates and lower child poverty. That's important because countless studies, in North America and elsewhere, have demonstrated that among the best predictors of a child who stays in school and succeeds socially is a mother with an education and a job. Both of those are more likely when vulnerable, young, or marginalized moms are able to find the support they need to go back to school or hold down a job, even one that pays very little.
It is not a stretch to argue that we need fewer counsellors doing individual therapy with kids and more employment counsellors working with their parents.
The same pattern of targeted support holds true for the children of immigrants. Early interventions that help children from ethnic and racial minorities get ready for elementary school pay back big dividends in school performance and school engagement (kids like coming to school). It's these families where we are more likely to encounter children who are growing up with parents who are under a lot of stress, traumatized by their past, or simply lacking the education or language skills to give their kids what they need to enter grade one ready to learn. An unprepared child is a child who is more likely to fail, drop out early and drift into delinquency.
For me, it comes down to whether we invest in subsidized daycare and early learning centres in communities where there are many disadvantaged families, or build prisons and hospitals to deal with the aftermath of lives lived in families on the margins. The fact is, we know how to prevent children tumbling into the same cycles of poverty and violence as their parents.
But do we have the political will to marry psychology and politics? Or do we keep listening to the uninformed, ideological, downright mean-spirited individuals who ignore the fact that all those social programs over the past 50 years have actually decreased problems like crime and teenage pregnancy and increased productivity.
Maybe it's time we target government services and pay our taxes. Not because the families with the most will get more direct financial benefits, but because a fairer society creates the conditions for kids to thrive even when they come from vulnerable families.
Giving shouldn't just be about charity from one individual to another. Good government that is properly funded to help the most psychologically and socially vulnerable is the best model of charity there is.