Cradle and all: Comprehensive supports for lone parent families and other poor people

Investing in Families seems like basic common sense, but it took academics like Gina Browne and her colleagues at McMaster University to build a solid case for supporting lone parents on social assistance.

When The Bough Breaks, their longitudinal 2001 study of single parents, showed that families move off social assistance more quickly when they are guided through the service maze than if they are left on their own.

Seven hundred and sixty-five families in the Hamilton and Halton region were randomly assigned to a different levels of support services:

  1. Home visits with a public health nurse to do health promotion,
  2. Employment (re-)training,
  3. Recreational & skills development programs for children, with parental involvement, or child care as appropriate
  4. Comprehensive services (all the above three), or
  5. No additional supports.

Families who had never accessed these services were now connected.

The families which did the best were the ones who received the whole suite of services (#4). The families who did the next best were the ones where the children had received the additional supports and programs (#3).

The ones who did the worse, the control group which mimics the current social assistance system, were the ones who were left on their own to negotiate their own move to independence (#5). It’s a learning which underscores recommendation is the current call for a review of social assistance in the province.

Ontario Works should be turned upside down. Today it is a program that provides financial assistance with some employment supports. The new program should be primarily focused on human capacity development, with financial assistance as just one of the tools available to assist low income Ontarians. – The Social Assistance Review Advisory Council (SARAC)

The City of Toronto took notice of these learnings, too. Its program, Investing in Families, was piloted in 2007 in the Jane Finch area has now been expanded to each of the city’s remaining Priority Neighbourhood Areas. Led by Toronto Employment and Social Services, the program brings together the services and resources from three other City divisions; Public Health, Children’s Services and Parks, Forestry and Recreation have each made commitments.

While burdensome for service-providers, working across silos, the model works for at least two good reasons.

First off, Browne noticed that their children were receiving direct program supports, parents were less likely to drop out of the study and more likely, in the end, to do better. Simply, parents with were motivated by active support for their children’s well-being.

Second is a lesson about the weight of poverty. In his book, The Persistence of Poverty, author Charles Karelis describes the “rational” reaction of a person stung by a bee. Salve would be found and applied. The metaphor describes how the middle class work to solve a problem when they meet one.

However, Karelis explained, poverty is more like being stung by a swarm of bees. Coming at you from all sides, this same “rational” person, with the same salve, would not even bother to make the attempt. Faced with more hurt than salve, the reasonable choice is to choose not to act. Why spend the energy on something that won’t stop the hurt? (Cf. The buzz about bee stings and the poor – The only solution is to ensure that all the bee stings are medicated.

So the anti-poverty programs that have been the most effective are the ones that wrap-around a vulnerable person, that give them a chance to catch their breath, and to take steps out of poverty.

And, win-win, Browne et. al. showed this saves the system money, too.

Every One Plays: Access to Recreation for Low Income Families in Ontario, Promising Practices Guide,The Ontario Task Group on Access to Recreation for Low Income Families

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