A Reflection on Family Separations and Childhood Poverty

Written by Rita Yembilah, Senior Researcher, Canadian Poverty Institute

In March 2016, the Canadian Poverty Institute (CPI) embarked on a research project to broaden the definition of child poverty. Our focus was in response to the fact that in Canada, there is no widely accepted definition of child poverty (de Boer, Rothwell & Lee, 2013). The “definitions” that exist are mainly monetary in nature, measuring the occurrence of child poverty rather than defining the concept. These definitions, which include the Low-Income Cut-off (LICO), the Low-Income Measure (LIM) and the Market Basket Measure (MBM) (de Boer, Rothwell & Lee, 2013), are tied to the child’s parents’ income status, essentially suggesting that children are poor because their parents are income poor. The downside of this is that, it increases the risk of making positive or negative judgments about the wellbeing of a child based solely on their family’s income. Thus, the CPI sought to define child poverty in a holistic way that makes it possible to think about child poverty from the perspective of the family and also from that of the child.

Through our research, four main domains of child poverty (or conversely, child wellbeing) emerged: The standard of living enjoyed by the child; the quality of social relationships a child experiences; the child’s perception of self and their personal narrative; and the degree to which societal institutions meet their obligations to children. We determined that multi-dimensional absolute child poverty occurs when a child lives a life of deprivation in all four aspects of child poverty. However, a child can also live in poverty when there is relative abundance in one or more aspects of the domains of child poverty but a dearth in other aspects, or the other way around.

The recent public outcry against the zero tolerance immigration policy implemented by the government of the USA, accompanied by stories of family separation provide an opportunity for the CPI to raise awareness about the multifaceted ways in which children can be poor. This also provides an opportunity for the CPI to draw attention to how societal actions and inactions can precipitate aspects of child poverty and impact a child’s life. The health and developmental challenges associated with socio-economic insecurity are well-documented in various disciplines. It is also known that at an impressionable age, destabilizing children’s relationships can result in long-term damage to them. Additionally, children’s relationships play a vital role in the development of the internal dialogues that drive their perception of self and the narratives which loosely or tightly influence their life’s course. In accordance with the Convention of the Rights of the Child, governments are obligated to provide safety, security and other assets toward the wellbeing of children. Failing this implies that children are exposed to structural poverty which can have indelible impacts on their lifes, compromising their wellbeing. More specifically, a wide swath of child poverty research cites child poverty as a contributing factor to attachment problems between parents and children, social deprivation and exclusion, risk of delinquency, lower educational attainment, and higher risk of future unemployment (Kingston et al., 2012; National Scientific Council on the Developing Child, 2014; Raphael, 2010; Shonkoff & Phillips, 2000; Winer & Thompson, 2013). These issues can be pre-empted if families, and society as a collective, continually examine child poverty through this multi-dimensional and interrelated lens; and planning responses to child poverty with this rounded framework in the foreground.

Within this milieu, the CPI hopes that the outcry from the zero-tolerance policy of the US government refocuses the attention of families, practitioners and researchers on the multiple ways in which children the world over can be living impoverished lifes that are not necessarily limited to the absence to financial security in the household to which they belong.


de Boer, K., Rothwell, D. W., & Lee, C. (2013). Child and family poverty in Canada: Implications for child welfare research (Canadian Child Welfare Research Portal Information Sheet No. 123).

Kingston, D., Heaman, M., Fell, D., & Chalmers, B. (2012). Comparison of adolescent, young adult, and adult women’s maternity experiences and practices. Pediatrics, 129(5), 1228–1237.

National Scientific Council on the Developing Child. (2014). Excessive stress disrupts the architecture of the developing brain (Working Paper No. 3) Updated Edition. Retrieved from www.developingchild.harvard.edu

Shonkoff, J. P., & Phillips, D. A. (Eds.). (2000). From neurons to neighborhoods: The science of early childhood development. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.

Winer, A. C., & Thompson, R. (2013). How poverty and depression impact a child’s social and emotional competence. Policy Brief: Center for Poverty Research1(10). Retrieved from http://poverty.ucdavis.edu