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Poverty and child welfare

Information about poverty, its effects on children and families, and the role it plays in child welfare involvement.

Child welfare and poverty

Child welfare research shows that poverty plays a significant role in child welfare involvement:

  • Poverty can be mistaken for neglect. Often the experience of poverty such as poor housing conditions and food insecurity) can look like neglect, resulting in increased reporting and substantiation for low-income families.
  • Poverty can contribute to increased scrutiny and monitoring of low-income families (who may access other social services or live in neighbourhoods and areas that are over-policed); this in turn can increase their exposure to mandated referrers. This effect has been referred to as visibility bias, surveillance bias, or exposure bias. Individual child welfare workers may also harbour anti-poor attitudes and class-based biases.
  • Poverty can be a source of significant stress, contributing to family crises and increased risk of child abuse and neglect.
  • Poverty is correlated with other household and caregiver risk factors such as substance abuse, intimate partner violence, and mental health issues, making it difficult to determine the exact relationship between poverty and child welfare involvement. Poverty is also racialized and thus contributes to racial disproportionalities and disparities in child welfare. Some populations, including African Canadian and Indigenous communities, experience higher rates of poverty due to structural barriers and oppressive policies resulting from colonization and racism.
  • Poverty can place families in a even more vulnerable and disempowered position when interacting with Children's Aid; for example, the report of the Motherisk Commission indicates that some families likely did not pay for additional testing to refute positive Motherisk results because testing was expensive. Access to legal assistance and other resources during child protection proceedings is also a challenge for low-income families.

There is also an inverse relationship between poverty and child welfare involvement: children who are removed from their families are far more likely to experience homelessness as well as other indicators of poverty such as unemployment and low educational achievement.

Spotlight on neglect

Links and resources