Education featured Healthcare Poverty

Education and early childhood development — The social determinants of health, part 3

KJIPUKTUK (Halifax) – For part three of my series on the social determinants of health, I’ll focus on two determinants that have been very hot issues during this election campaign: education, and early childhood development.

Once again, these issues are complex and interconnected, so please stay with me!

People with higher levels of education are generally healthier than those with lower educational levels.  An important question is: does education make us healthier, or does it help us achieve greater material and social resources?

Most likely, both are correct.  There’s a correlation between education levels and other social determinants of health, such as income levels, job security and working conditions.

Folks with better education are also more likely to have a job that would provide them additional on-the-job training opportunities, as well as retraining if their job situation suddenly changes.  And of course, education also increases overall literacy (civic and social, not just the ability to read and write) and can help people understand how to take better care of their own health.

In terms of early childhood development, early childhood experiences have immediate effects that affect children’s health when they’re young, and longer-lasting effects that can influence their health later in life.

Early childhood experiences can predispose children to good or poor health as adults, regardless of what happens later in life. During pregnancy, poor diet, alcohol or tobacco use, and parental stress makes it more likely that the baby will have Type 2 diabetes or heart disease when he or she grows up.

Children’s exposure to potential risk factors don’t always have immediate health consequences.  If a child isn’t ready to learn when they start school, it’s not a health issue in and of itself.  However, limited learning abilities generally do lead to lower levels of education and employment.  And of course, low-paying, insecure employment can cause poor health.

Most importantly, the longer children live in poverty, the more likely they are to develop physical and mental health problems as adults.  Not just chronic diseases like heart disease and Type 2 diabetes, but also cognitive and emotional issues.  Negative childhood experiences can also create a sense of learned helplessness, which has a significant impact on one’s health.

So what’s a government to do?

Improving educational opportunities is crucial.  Our public education system must be adequately funded so schools can provide the rich, varied curriculum all students deserve. All three major parties have been talking about education extensively during the current campaign, but the issue of an overly-narrow curriculum hasn’t really been on the agenda.

Post-secondary tuition must also be better controlled so that children from low-income families can afford higher education. The NDP has been the only party that has made any substantial promises on this front.  They promise to eliminate tuition for all students at Nova Scotia Community College, and reduce university tuition fees by 10% over four years by directly funding post-secondary institutions, with the end goal of eventually eliminating university tuition fees as well.  However, to their credit, the Tories plan on signing a new Memorandum of Agreement with universities to lower tuition rates to the national average.

Regarding early childhood development, government must ensure that quality, affordable childcare is available for all families regardless of income or wealth.  The NDP plans to invest substantially in early childhood education, and the Liberals have a few ideas that are less detailed, but universal affordable childcare is just one option for improving early childhood development.

Higher minimum wages and social assistance benefits, increasing the minimum wage to a living wage, ensuring income support is tied to living costs, and upholding children’s right to child support are also important for improving early childhood development.  When you consider the fact that 22.5% of children in Nova Scotia live in poverty, this is something that affects ALL OF US.

All children deserve a rich, varied curriculum during the P-12 years, and everyone should be able to afford post-secondary education of their choice.  Nova Scotia has the highest rate of child poverty in Atlantic Canada and the third-highest in the country.  Every MLA should be losing sleep over this regardless of their party affiliation.

Let’s hope that whichever party wins the election on Tuesday makes the right decisions for our children, now and into the future.

And what can you do?  You can continue learning about these issues long after election day.

Alex Kronstein is an Autistic adult and host of the podcast The NeurodiveCast.  He is passionate about disability rights, social justice issues, and filmmaking.  Follow Alex on Twitter.

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