Cover

A HEAD START ON LIFE

KEN MACQUEEN October 27 2003
Cover

A HEAD START ON LIFE

KEN MACQUEEN October 27 2003

A HEAD START ON LIFE

KEN MACQUEEN

MOST ANY MAP of Vancouver can point you to a street, park or playing field. What makes University of British Columbia healthcare expert Clyde Hertzman’s maps so compelling is that they peer into the future. They are neighbourhood maps of childhood potential: maps predicting, by their address, the local kids’ destinies—their chance of a secure upbringing, degree of emotional maturity, likelihood of school success, even their risk of health problems lifelong.

There is no magic to it. The Early Childhood Development Mapping Project—led by Hertzman with a team of academic, government and community partners—is the first in Canada to chart the variables that influence early childhood development in neighbourhoods province-wide. The initial results, while predictable, are troubling in their long-term implications. Children in the poorest neighbourhoods—say, northcentral and east-side Vancouver—suffer a disproportionate degree of “developmental vulnerability.” Poverty puts children behind from birth, and keeps them behind for life.

There’s growing evidence that a child’s earliest experiences “have a more powerful and long-lasting effect on subsequent health, well-being and competence than had been previously thought,” Hertzman writes in a study calling for a national early childhood development strategy. The maps show that such problem indicators as low birth weight, crime rates, child protection investigations, health problems and lower measures of literacy, social performance and emotional security all parallel “patterns of neighbourhood disadvantage.”

If money can’t buy happiness, it can offer a likelihood of a stable home in a safe neighbourhood, adequate nutrition, and the kind of involved parenting—from reading books to encouraging participation in games and sports—that actually shapes brain development. Those not prepared intellectually or emotionally for school are more prone to dropping out, early pregnancy, criminal activity, marginal jobs and, ultimately, such health problems as heart disease, high blood pressure and adult-onset diabetes, Hertzman notes.

It’s a rare government that pays more than lip service to children and family. The federal and provincial governments launched the National Children’s Agenda six years ago to work toward eliminating child poverty, yet progress is elusive. The number of children in poverty has dropped to one in six, from one in five, says the advocacy group Campaign 2000. Still, the number of people using food banks climbed 5.5 per cent this year to 777,869 a month, the Canadian Association of Food Banks reported last week. Almost 40 per cent of those recipients are children.

Last month, B.C. Premier Gordon Campbell unveiled Achieve BC, a Web site with a heavy emphasis on childhood development assistance (www.achieveBC.ca). “All of us need help to achieve our goals,” he said. At the same time, the province’s Ministry of Children and Family Development is slashing $70 million and 525 jobs. The gap between word and deed is all too typical, says Steve Kerstetter, communications adviser for First Call, a B.C. child advocacy coalition. “Governments have been known to talk a lot about doing things for families with children,” he says, “but they don’t seem to come through at the end of the day.”

FIRST STEPS Advocates such as B.C.’s First Call are leading the campaign for some basics: higher child benefits, especially for those on social assistance; a national child-care program; and more affordable housing

to come through at day.” Cheryl Prepchuk, executive director of the Greater Vancouver Food Bank Society, sees growing anger among its clients. “We know a lack of food can affect a child’s ability to learn and grow, and it reduces their resistance to infection,” she says. “We also know that it creates exponential stress on the family when children go hungry.” Besides, she says, any savings from cutting budgets now are offset down the road by the cost of lost opportunities. It’s simple, says Prepchuk: “We’re not providing poor children with the ability to perform to their potential.”