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The Gold Standard

By Michelle Gold
Network, Fall 2007

Income Is a Key Determinant of Children’s Mental Health

Studies over the past 40 years have consistently shown that children living in poverty experience more mental health problems compared to children growing up in households with adequate financial resources. Specifically, children living in poverty demonstrate a higher prevalence of internalizing symptoms, such as depression and anxiety, or externalizing (aggressive or anti-social) behaviour.

Two theories that explain the association between low income and children’s mental health are the family stress model and the family investment model.

The family stress model asserts that economic hardship occurs when families lack the financial resources to acquire basic necessities such as food and clothing and suitable housing. These economic pressures create emotional distress in parents and distraction from the necessary activities of positive parenting. In the case of single parents, distress may be further amplified as a result of having to cope on one’s own. As a result, parents are less likely to be involved in their children’s daily lives. A high-quality parental relationship is one where parents and children spend time together, and trust and respect one another. Research has confirmed that children in families experiencing economic hardship are more likely to have weak emotional bonds with their parents, which predisposes children to psychological distress.

The mental health consequences of economic hardship appear to vary in children, depending on the family’s history of poverty. In a renowned longitudinal study of four- and five-year-olds, children with previous family histories of poverty had higher levels of depression than anti-social behaviour, and their rate of depression continued over the five years of the study, regardless of whether the family’s financial status later improved. In the same study, exhibiting anti-social behaviour at baseline was not significantly linked to a previous history of poverty. However, these children demonstrated rising rates of anti-social behaviour as they aged under conditions of persistent poverty. The authors suggest that increasing rates of anti-social behaviour may be the result of ongoing harsh disciplinary reactions to their behaviour, or may result from continued exposure to the unsafe or unhealthy living conditions that poor families typically experience. Thus, economic hardship in the early years can significantly affect the mental health of children.

Economic hardship also affects adolescents, and the impact can be long-term. In a study following a random sample of American families for 17 years, adolescents who experienced economic hardship in their teenage years reported significantly poorer psychological well-being all the way into adulthood compared to adolescents who did not experience economic hardship.

The family investment model focuses on the other end of the continuum by drawing attention to the assets that promote healthy child development. This model posits that families with greater economic resources are better able to invest in financial, social and educational resources for their children, which ultimately promotes psychological well-being through to adulthood. Children in families with higher incomes have greater access to books, stimulating games, special lessons, sports, cultural events, as well as safe, quality housing. These children also tend to achieve higher levels of education, which creates greater opportunities for employment, higher incomes and an enhanced sense of control over one’s life.

Conversely, poor families are primarily consumed with acquiring resources to meet their basic needs. These families typically live in crowded, unhealthy or unstable housing, experience more accidents and have greater exposure to violence. Disadvantaged neighbourhoods typically have less social capital, such as weaker social ties, less interpersonal trust and lower levels of support. These types of conditions are linked to increased psychological distress, thereby affecting a child’s emotional and behavioural well-being. Lack of investment also appears to reduce opportunities to foster children’s social competence and educational attainment, which are predisposing factors for future work and subsequent earned income. These factors create conditions that can perpetuate the cycle of poverty.

In Ontario, one in six children lives in poverty. Families are considered to be living in poverty when their income is below the low-income cut-off, a measure used in Canada to reference the threshold below which households devote a larger share of income to the necessities of food, shelter and clothing than the average family. This is informally referred to as the “poverty line.” Not only are almost half a million children living in poverty in Ontario, but the depth of poverty is significant. Using 2004 statistics on average low income for Ontario, the average low-income family with two parents needs an additional $11,000 per year just to bring them up to the poverty line. For a low-income single parent family, $9,500 in additional income is needed.

In 2006, 280,000 children depended on the financial support their parents received through Ontario Works or the Ontario Disability Support Program, intended for individuals and families with little or no alternative source of income. Provincial social assistance benefits have declined significantly in real dollars since 1994 due to cutbacks and inflation. These families are living significantly below the low income cut-off. However, poverty is not only a condition for those without employment earnings. Forty percent of low-income children in Ontario have a parent is who working full-time.

Poverty is a fundamental issue that impacts the well-being of children, families and society. Through Campaign 2000, a coalition of organizations is supporting action to achieve the 1989 all-party federal resolution to end child poverty in Canada by the year 2000. With a provincial election this October, the coalition is urging the new government that will be formed to put in place a poverty reduction strategy that includes an adequate level of income for persons on social assistance; earlier implementation of the new Ontario Child Benefit; work tax credits for low wage workers; affordable housing and rent supplements; enhanced access to early learning and child care; and more education and training programs.

CMHA, Ontario is also calling on all parties this election to make a commitment to reducing poverty in Ontario. We are urging the provincial government to increase Ontario Disability Support Program rates. Ontario must also continue to invest in affordable housing, as well as supportive housing for persons with serious mental illness. Income is a key determinant of mental health for children, and throughout the life cycle. This election is an opportunity to make your voice heard. We encourage you to speak to your candidates about the importance of taking action to reduce poverty in Ontario.

Michelle Gold is senior director of policy and programs at CMHA, Ontario.


Addictions Ontario, Canadian Mental Health Association Ontario, Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, Ontario Federation of Community Mental Health and Addiction Programs. “Ontario Election 2007: Focus on Addiction and Mental Health.”

Campaign 2000. “A Poverty Reduction Strategy for Ontario,” July

Campaign 2000. “Child Poverty in Ontario. Promises to Keep. 2006 Report Card on Child Poverty in Ontario.”

Conger, R.D., and Donnellan, M.B. (2007). An Interactionist Perspective on the Socioeconomic Context of Human Development. Annual Review of Psychology 58: 175-199.

Evans, G.W. (2004). The Environment of Childhood Poverty. American Psychologist 59(2): 77-92.

McLeod, J.D., and Shanahan, M.J. (1996). Trajectories of Poverty and Children’s Mental Health. Journal of Health and Social Behavior 37(3): 207-220.

Sobolewski, J.M., Amato, P.R. (2005). Economic Hardship in the Family of Origin and Children’s Psychological Well-Being in Adulthood. Journal of Marriage and Family 67: 141-156.

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