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Ten Years Old and ‘Already Screwed’

A major BC study sets out a road map to a better future.

Andrew MacLeod 31 Mar 2023TheTyee.ca

Andrew MacLeod is The Tyee's Legislative Bureau Chief in Victoria and the author of All Together Healthy (Douglas & McIntyre, 2018). Find him on Twitter or reach him at .

By the time children are in Grade 4 in B.C. schools, it’s possible to predict which ones are unlikely to graduate from high school and will likely face a lifetime of challenges, according to a major new study.

And it suggests early supports could change the future for thousands of children and cut costs for government.

“To me it’s shocking,” said William Warburton, one of the report’s authors and an economist affiliated with the University of British Columbia. “The conclusion is for a lot of those kids the die is already cast by the time they get to age 10. If they’re 10 years old and already screwed, that’s not a just society.”

The research, based on government data from a million British Columbians, shows the importance of targeting support to at-risk families long before their children reach school age.

“We make the case for ameliorating social concerns such as poverty, crime, homelessness, and drug and alcohol abuse,” the authors wrote, “by means of preventative interventions focusing on helping children identified using rigorous analysis based on administrative data.” The report proposes a process to determine which interventions are most effective.

In B.C., about 2,000 students a year, or five per cent, are at “extreme risk” of failing to complete high school and facing later struggles.

The IZA Institute of Labor Economics published “A Scientific Approach to Addressing Social Issues Using Administrative Data” this month.

The other authors were Gaelle Simard-Duplain at Carleton University in Ottawa, Arthur Sweetman at McMaster University in Hamilton and David Green, the University of British Columbia economics professor who led a study for the provincial government that recommended against providing a universal guaranteed basic income, proposing a targeted approach.

The researchers had access to B.C. data on education, health, social services and crime for more than a million students born between 1976 and 1997.

“These data sources illustrate that social issues including poverty, crime, homelessness and drug and alcohol abuse primarily manifest among those who do not complete high school,” they concluded. “We also showed that it is straightforward to identify children who are at extreme risk of not completing high school with quite high accuracy.”

Warburton said about three-quarters of the social issues were accounted for by the 20 to 25 per cent of the population who hadn’t completed high school. “We would have a happier, healthier society if more people had the characteristics of people who graduate high school,” he said.

The graduation rate in B.C. has been trending upwards in recent decades, but still about one out of five people don’t finish high school.

While there are already programs that provide support to families with children, it’s clear from the data that more could be done, Warburton said. “Even though we have wonderful things in Canada, more is needed,” he said. “Whatever safety net we’ve got is not doing it.”

Spending more on the early years would have a large upfront cost, but the long-term payback would be substantial and would ultimately be better for both the people receiving support and for taxpayers, Warburton said.

Recommendations in the report include trying a range of promising interventions, evaluating them in a credible way, expanding the ones with the biggest impacts and either reforming or ending the ones with poor or negative impacts.

Warburton said interventions to try might include programs to build parenting skills, encourage interaction with babies or support better nutrition.

While he supports targeting help to people who are most likely to benefit, he cautioned against programs that group children with disadvantages together. “I am very wary of interventions that might have that characteristic to them.”

The authors also recommended the government “appoint an independent science officer, not affiliated with the government, to oversee the allocation of services to children, to select measures for success and to identify interventions that did not achieve their objectives and those that did.”

The report and the recommendations rely on modern data collection and analysis capabilities that weren’t feasible in previous decades, the authors wrote. Those capabilities should be taken advantage of to make a difference in people’s lives, they say.  [Tyee]

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