PRB Discuss Online: Growing Up in North America, How Are Children Faring Economically?

(October 2008) Globalization helped increase incomes in Canada, the United States, and Mexico for more than 10 years, but left many children vulnerable economically. While they differ substantially on many economic indicators, the 120 million children living in North America face surprisingly similar problems, including: Comparatively high rates of child poverty, particularly among indigenous communities and racial or ethnic minorities; increasing income inequality; and lack of access to affordable housing, an adequate diet (particularly in Mexico), and health care (for millions in the United States and Mexico).


During a PRB Discuss Online, Katherine Scott, vice president of research, Canadian Council on Social Development; Mark Mather, associate vice president of Domestic Programs, Population Reference Bureau; and Nashieli Ramirez Hernandez, president of Consejo Directivo/Children’s Rights Network in Mexico, answered participants’ questions about the economic well-being of children in Canada, the United States, and Mexico, and strategies for alleviating child poverty.


October 29, 2008 1 PM EST


Transcript of Questions and Answers


Daniel Vergara: How have the children’s health indicators in Mexico have progressed over time since NAFTA started? I dare to assume that in the aggregate level children’s health may have improved, but I am almost positive that the differences have been critically deepened. How right or wrong is my assumption?
Nashieli Ramirez Hernandez: Mexico’s mortality rate for children below five years of age has decreased from 44.2 for each 1,000 births in 1990 to 25 in 2003. In terms of infant mortality, in the same period, the country’s rate went from 36.2 to 20.5 deaths- These numbers place Mexico slightly below the average for Latin America and the Caribbean, which is 34 deaths of children below the age of five for each 1,000 births. Within the country, there is a high degree of unevenness in these indicators. The highest infant mortality rates are in the states with the greatest levels of marginalization and poverty. In the states with the highest infant the risk of dying was 60 per cent greater than in all the states with lower levels of marginalization. The variations within some states are even greater, especially in those with higher levels of marginalization. In Oaxaca, for example, a child from the indigenous municipality of Santiago Amoltepec has three times the risk of dying before reaching his first year of life than a child from the urban municipality of Santa María del Tule. You can look for more information in the report “Growing Up in North America: Child Health and Safety in Canada, the United States, and Mexico” Information in Spanish in

Mary Kent: Which Canadian children have the highest poverty rates? How does Canada’s child poverty compare with the levels in the U.S. or Mexico?
Katherine Scott: In Canada, roughly 12% of children under age 18 are poor – according to national sources – roughly the same proportion as twenty years ago, this despite sustained economic growth up until recently. Levels of child poverty are lower in Canada than in the United States or Mexico – in part because of transfers to families and the availability of universal health care. That said, many Canadian children face high levels of persistent poverty. According to the 2001 Census, 40 percent of Aboriginal children under age 18 lived in households below Canada’s pre-tax poverty line. Visible minority children, many living in new immigrant families, struggle economically as well: One in every two children in recent immigrant families (49%) lived in poverty in 2000. The poverty rate for children with disabilities was 28% in 2000; families with a parent or child with a disability are much more likely to rely on social assistance as a primary source of income.

Nadwa: Research has found that higher remittance flows are associated with lower poverty, better health and higher levels of education for children in the developing world. What is the impact of a drop in remittances to Mexico from the slowdown in the U.S. economy and tougher immigration restrictions on Mexican children in recent months?
Nashieli Ramirez Hernandez: In Mexico remittance flows are the second largest source of external funding, after oil sales. Mexico is [one of] the top four remittance recipients in the world, [and] reported remittance inflows for $25 billion in 2007. According to recently published official data, migrant remittances to Mexico declined by 2.6 percent during January-May 2008, compared to the same period last year. The relation between lower poverty, better health and higher levels of education for children and remittances is clear, if you considered that remittances mostly or sometimes completely cover general consumption and/or housing in the poorest states in the country. One estimate indicates that 80 percent of the money received goes for food, clothing, health care, transportation, education and housing expenses. The ministry of social development already declares that as result of the decline of remittances, poverty rates will began to grow. As you see we are going to have problems: less income and people that are beginning to come back unemployed. In recent weeks, Mexican newspapers have been filled with news about the imminent return of thousands of Mexican migrants because of the economic crisis facing the United States. These news [reports] are talking about the return of 500 people a day for Sonora (El Financiero, 25/10/08), 4 thousand migrants from Chicago who returned to the Federal District (The Weekly, 14/10/08), 20 thousand families living in the United States who have returned to Michoacan so far this year (La Jornada Michoacán, 10/10/08). Finally, the National Migration Institute said it had detected a growing number of Mexican immigrants who return to Mexico in its final form by the economic crisis in the U.S. (El Universal, 30/9/08).

Rahat Bari Tooheen: It appears that the benefits of globalization have not been uniformly distributed among ethnic minorities, even in the US. What policy level changes are needed in this regard, and what can the American people do to help?
Mark Mather: “Globalization” is a somewhat vague concept but I think of it in terms of the increasing flow of people, tasks, and ideas across national borders. In the United States, globalization is linked to a decline in blue-collar manufacturing jobs, although automation and technological advances has also played a role in that decline. Today, most high-paying jobs require a college degree, so those with only a high school diploma or less are at a major disadvantage. From a children’s policy perspective, we need to make sure that today’s youth can compete in the global economy by providing them with the necessary education and skills. You can find more information about this in PRB’s recent report on the U.S. Labor Force.

Patricia Carmona: In terms of the current economic crisis, how will it impact children in the region, and which policy reforms are crucial to lessen this impact in all three countries?
Katherine Scott: Given what we know, there are a few key policy areas where governments can make a difference in the lives of children growing up in poverty. Building and sustaining services and supports for children and their families is essential to creating a context within which children can grow and thrive. Government income programs can and do play an important role in preventing and alleviating child and family poverty. Similarly, quality child care, affordable housing, and universal health care are key components of a comprehensive poverty reduction strategy. Targeted programs that address the challenges of particular groups of children such as Aboriginal children are needed as well. Adjustment assistance for those families directly impacted by economic dislocation is also important as its absence can devastate families and whole communities. Education is another area in which government policies help children position themselves in the new global knowledge economy. Although education by itself does not guarantee economic security, education has become more important in all three economies. Lack of education has brought real losses in income and relative social status to workers and their families. Improving the quality of education, especially in Mexico, is important to realizing the potential of children. Investment in children and youth is critical in good economic times and bad. The danger as recessions take hold and public revenues decline is that supports and services for those children and youth will be scaled back. Such a strategy is short-sighted in the extreme – even a year is a long time in the life of a child. Investment in children is an essential strategy in development productive economies and societies, able to adapt and thrive in the face of global pressures such as we are experiencing today.
Mark Mather: We need to think about children as an investment, just like the Dow Jones Industrial Average. Invest in the long term, and eventually you will see big dividends. Given the current problems in the U.S. economy, there may be a temptation to reduce spending on health, education, or other programs that invest in children’s development. But we need to ensure that children have the resources and skills they need to become productive adults. In 10 or 20 years, today’s children will provide the backbone of the U.S. economy.

Jason Bremner: Research shows that many outcomes depend on early childhood education. In the U.S. we rely on programs such as Head Start to provide opportunities to children and families who are economically disadvantaged. What are the trends for Head Start enrollment and funding in the U.S.? Are they keeping up with demographic and socio-economic changes? And do such programs exist in Canada and Mexico?

Mark Mather: Head Start funding has increased over the years but has not kept up with inflation and many argue it has not kept pace with the growing needs of America’s disadvantaged youth (see National Head Start Association at You may also be interested in the Urban Institute’s report called “Kids’ Share,” which provides an overview of federal funding for children’s programs. (see One of the big challenges for Head Start, from a demographic perspective, is the rapid growth of low-income children living in immigrant families.
Katherine Scott: The international research is mounting, showing the value of early child development programs – for children and societies as a whole. Certainly early child development is a critical plank in poverty reduction strategies. Unfortunately, in Canada, we have been a laggard in this regard, certainly compared to European countries, with the notable exception of the province of Quebec. The availability of regulated child care is very uneven across the country. Some provinces are only just introducing kindergarten for 4 and 5 year-olds. There are “Head Start” style programs in many communities and on reserve for Aboriginal children, but the need certainly outstrips supply. In 2000, the federal government in Canada sets aside funds for early childhood development and subsequently announced plans to expand child care. With the change of government in 2006, these plans were shelved. A new child benefit was announced to assist with the cost of child care – but the amount is meager, poorly targeted, and the program itself has done nothing to expand supply or improve working conditions in the child care sector. Much remains to be done. For Canada, please see: Friendly, Terns, Beach and Turiano (2007), Early Childhood Education and Care in Canada, 7th edition. Tracey Bushnik (2006), Child Care in Canada.
Nashieli Ramirez Hernandez: We don’t have that kind of program in Mexico. Less than 8% of the child population (from Birth to three years) is covered by initial education. Pre-school education is predominantly (over 80%) state provided. In November, 2002, the Law of Obligatory Pre-schooling became oficial, not only makes it obligatory for the State to provide pre-school education services for children 3 to 6 years of age when that is demanded, but also makes it obligatory for parents to see that their children, of those ages, attend a public or private pre-school. The law sets a schedule for attaining universal enrolment: for children age 5 that should occur at the beginning of the 2004-5 school year, for age 4, in 2005-6, and for age 3, in the 2008-9 school year. It also states that pre-school teachers should have professional preparation. In the beginning of these years the government released [a report stating] that reaching that goal was nearly impossible, and made changes in the law, making only 4 and 5 years obligatory. If you want to have more inforation, Mexico, Canada and USA are part of the twenty-one countries that have volunteered to participate in the Thematic Review of Early Childhood Education and Care Policy, a project launched by the OECD’s Education Committee. These countries provide a diverse range of social, economic and political contexts, as well as varied policy approaches toward the education and care of young children, several reports from the review may be viewed on the project web site

Sanghmitra S Acharya: Obesity is one of the major health concerns in N America. Given the current income inequalities among social/ethnic groups and high rates of child poverty; what couild be the mechanisms to address- (a) containing obesity among children and young adults?; (b) consequent health problems and provision of care; and (c)changing dietary pattern and content.
Katherine Scott: Obesity and being overweight are emerging as a major concern throughout North America. Being overweight or obese during childhood can and does have a lifelong impact on health and quality of life. Researchers in each country are working to identify the best strategies for promoting healthy weight in children and youth, and preventing the development of chronic diseases associated with obesity such type 2 diabetes, hypertension, heart disease, arthritis, and cancer. What we do know is that individual- and population-level strategies are needed to tackle the complex social and environmental factors linked to obesity. Successful programs are dynamic, designed to meet the needs of specific population groups. Research shows that the promotion of breastfeeding, creating opportunities for regular physical activity, changing dietary patterns, and reducing the time children are engaged in passive activities like watching television are all important in reducing obesity. To this end, schools are key settings for programming. Existing programming, however, tends to focus on individual behaviour. There is also a critical need for more upstream, population-focused interventions that address issues such as food distribution networks, lack of opportunities for physical activities, community access to recreation. Some examples include:

• Staple food-pricing policies that protect the price of food staples like milk and whole grain bread and make these foods more affordable for families with children;

• Policies that support local farmers and provide low income families access to local farm produce;

• Nutrition policies that support healthy food in schools and classroom education that encourages healthy eating behaviours and attitudes.

• Access to recreation programs – and all the supports that make that happen.

For additional information, see World Health Organization (2000) “Obesity: Preventing and Managing the Global Epidemic.” WHO Technical Report Series 894. Available at: For information on obesity in Canada, see Canadian Population Health Initiative (2006), Improving the Health of Canadians: Promoting Healthy Weights. Available at:
Nashieli Ramirez Hernandez: The report “Growing Up in North America: Child Health and Safety in Canada, the United States, and Mexico”, points out that all three countries report that the rates of obesity among young people are rising rapidly. More than a quarter of children in each country are obese. You can also have information related to current policies and programs, lessons learned from current interventions, and potential public policy approaches, in the report “Joint U.S.–Mexico Workshop on Preventing Obesity in Children and Youth of Mexican Origin” available in the The National Academies Press web site (
Mark Mather: This is a real challenge in the U.S. because there are many structural and financial barriers for families—especially lower-income minority groups—to eating right and staying physically fit. We need to address physical fitness and healthy eating habits for families but we also need to provide affordable access to healthy foods. The Institute of Medicine conducted a study a few years ago and has several recommendations to address childhood obesity. You can view their report online at

Bill Butz: It would seem useful to compare the wellbeing of children in the parts of the three countries that are geographically, culturally, and economically most similar. Accordingly, what do we know about the condition of children in the border counties of Canada and the U.S., and in the border counties of Mexico and the U.S.?
Mark Mather: Good question. I don’t know that this has been attempted for counties along the northern U.S. border but the Annie E. Casey Foundation has done some research on kids living in counties bordering Mexico:
Katherine Scott: To my knowledge, there hasn’t been a project that looks at the well-being of children along the US – Canadian border, certainly not like the Border Kids Count project. There have been any number of environmental, economic, transportation and security studies of different border regions, for example, around the Great Lakes. But children haven’t figured prominently in these.

Nashieli Ramirez Hernandez: You can look for a overview of data on children living on the Southwest Border of the USA and Mexico’s northern border region, in the Borders Kid Count Reports. and

Will: What is the impact of immigration on child well-being in Canada, Mexico, and the U.S.?
Katherine Scott: International migration is shaping the futures of children across North America. In Canada, the scale of immigration is changing the face of the population. It is estimated that 20 percent of Canadians under age 18 are immigrants or the children of immigrant parents. In some of Canada’s major cities, it is estimated that half the population will be foreign-born by 2020. Immigration represents a tremendous opportunity for Canada. At the same time, there are issues related to settlement that are having a negative impact – certainly on children and their families. In particular, it is taking longer for recent immigrants to find and secure good employment, in many instances, despite high levels of training and skill. As a result, new immigrants struggle with high levels of poverty in Canada. Education, health care and social services are also struggling to serve increasingly diverse populations. Confusion and conflict over responsibility for immigration and settlement between the federal and provincial governments continues to hinder efforts to develop effective programs, compounding disadvantage for many groups of immigrant children and youth.
Nashieli Ramirez Hernandez: Mexico is mostly an emigration country, the migration to the United States of America is one of the main generative fonts of income in many poor communities of the southern states. According to recent reports, around 20% of all families with female members (especially mothers and wives) in Mexico receiving remittances and usually are the recipients of money transfers. The most important thing in this paper is that about 80% of all remittances are used to meet the basic needs of families, such as food, rent, education, health and public services. As you can see the money received in rural communities’ impact directly on better conditions for the children. Nevertheless [there are] studies regarding the negative impact of the absence of the father and in sometimes mother. You can also look for information around migration in the Americas and its impact on child well-being and child welfare policy, systems, and services, in the Migration and Child Welfare National Network ( and Data Snapshot: One Out of Five U.S. Children is Living in an Immigrant Family and Children in Immigrant Families: U.S. and State-Level Findings from the 2000 Census(
Mark Mather: There are two major groups of immigrants coming to the United States. Those arriving from Mexico and other Latin American countries tend to have less education and fewer skills than the U.S.-born population, while those arriving from Asia tend to be highly-skilled workers recruited to work in high-tech fields. So the prospects for children vary a great deal, depending on the circumstances of their parents’ migration to the United States. We need to pay attention to how these kids are doing because they make up large and growing share of the child population. More than one in five U.S. kids is foreign-born or lives with a foreign-born parent.

Steve: What are the implications of the current economic crisis for children in the three countries?
Mark Mather: Kids prospects are closely tied to parental income and work, so the current crisis is likely to have a big impact on children in the U.S. Many kids who were living in low-income working families are likely to find themselves in poor families that are out of work. Health care costs and food costs have risen dramatically in recent years, and many families are going to have trouble paying for these basic necessities. Look for an increase in the number of children without health insurance, and living in food-insecure households.
Katherine Scott: What our report shows it that there are marked disparities in the economic well-being of children and their families between Canada and the United States and Mexico and within each country as well. The current period of economic crisis can be expected to compound these divisions, putting at risk the healthy development of many more children. The global character of the current economic crisis demonstrates how interconnected the future of children in North America – and those around the world – is. A financial crisis originating in the United States is now reaching down to touch the lives of children in far distant places. In Canada, several industries are under intense pressure as access to credit has declined precipitously and markets for their goods have started to dry up. Lay-offs in manufacturing continue. Commodity prices have collapsed. Families are wondering whether their savings and pensions will recover. Government revenues are declining. All agree that the coming year will be very difficult. In Canada, there is a real concern that cutbacks in income security programs in the 1990s will significantly hinder the ability of governments to provide transitional support to children and families. Unemployment insurance and welfare programs, in particular, were scaled back and eligibility requirements changed. Already there are signs that community service providers are struggling with growing demand for service. During economic crises, perversely, inequality tends to decrease as families across the income spectrum experience declines. At the same time, economic crises tend to deepen or entrench existing disparities. For its part, Canada hasn’t experienced a deep recession in 17 years. It remains to be seen what the impact of the current crisis will be. We can say with some certainty, however, that millions of children and youth across North America are at substantial economic risk.
Nashieli Ramirez Hernandez: [English translation follows] Ante el tamaño de la crisis financiera que se vive en el mundo, is impensable que esto no tendrá impacto en un México. En el caso de nuestro país además hay que considerar la fuerte integración económica con los Estados Unidos, así como la dependencia en las remesas. Los signos comienzan ya a sentirse disminución del flujo de remesas, retorno de migrantes y reducción en el gasto social dentro del Presupuesto Federal progamado para 2008. La infancia mexicana sentirá esta crisis en su alimentación (se están presentando ya incrementos en los productos de la canasta básica), hay que considerar en este aspecto que la economia de subsitencia en el campo mexicano ha sido fuertemente golpeada a partir de la firma del Tratado de Libre Comercio. También la sentirá en su salud y en la educación por la anunciada disminución en el gasto social. [Given the size of the global economic crisis, Mexico will surely suffer the impact. And, in our case, we have to take into account the level of economic involvement we share with the U.S. as well as our dependency on remittances. The signs are already visible: reduced flow of remittances, migrants returning to Mexico, and a reduction of social expenditures within the federal budget planned for 2008. The nutrition of Mexican children will be affected (basic food items are going up in price). In this regard, we have to consider that the subsistence economy in rural Mexico was already affected by the Free Trade Agreement. Children’s health and education will also be affected because of the reduction in social expenditures that has been announced.]

For more information, see: New Report Reveals Growing Inequality and Economic Hardships for Children in North America