Nova Scotia

New study on well-being of N.S. children finds too many being left behind

A new study on the well-being and rights of children in Nova Scotia found that poverty, systemic racism and discrimination are the most urgent threats kids face.

Poverty, systemic racism, discrimination are the most urgent threats, authors say

The study looked at data to analyze whether children are happy, healthy and secure, among other questions. (Michael Gorman/CBC)

A new study on the well-being of children and youth in Nova Scotia has found that while most kids are doing well, those who are faring worse are often living in poverty or are a member of a group that has historically faced discrimination.

The study, called One Chance to be a Child, was conducted by the Department of Pediatrics and Healthy Populations Institute at Dalhousie University.

The researchers analyzed data collected by government agencies and departments, health authorities, provincial organizations, school-based surveys and other researchers about babies, kids and youth up to the age of 18.

The study aimed to answer six key questions about children: 

  • Are we secure?
  • Are we learning?
  • Are we healthy?
  • Are we happy?
  • Are we connected to the environment?
  • Do we belong and are we protected?

One of the authors of the study, Sara Kirk, said most children in Nova Scotia do well.

"But if we are a civil society, we need to make sure that every child does well and all children are included in that," said Kirk, a professor of health promotion at Dalhousie.

"It's not the child that's the problem. It's the systems that are discriminating against, and it's the systems that are oppressing them that are the issues."

Poverty and discrimination

The report found that poverty, racism and discrimination were the most urgent threats to children.

About 11.7 per cent of children aged 17 years and younger — approximately one in nine — were living in families experiencing poverty that affected basic needs such as food, clothing, and shelter. That figure is above the national average of 9.7 per cent, but is a decrease from previous levels in 2018 and 2015, according to the report.

A separate analysis of poverty looks at when a lack of money excludes children from having material goods or opportunities most would consider normal for a good life — like receiving a modest birthday gift, having internet in their home or participating in extracurricular activities. It found that one in four kids in Nova Scotia experienced this type of poverty, compared with the national average of 17.7 per cent.

Sara Kirk is a professor with the Dalhousie School of Health and Human Performance and is one of the authors of the study. (Colleen Jones/CBC)

Kids from the households with the lowest income were found to be more likely to report low life satisfaction, sadness, depression, loneliness and low self-confidence, and were less likely to trust others, feel it's safe to play outside, eat fruit and vegetables and be involved in organized sports.

"Poverty experienced in childhood is a tragedy of public policy. Nova Scotia's children and youth are paying the price," the report notes.

Many young Nova Scotians are also affected by discrimination, including 2SLGBTQ youth, Mi'kmaw, African-Nova Scotians, newcomers and those with disabilities.

"They are experiencing discrimination. They are experiencing exclusion. And that clearly impacts their well-being," said Kirk.

Those impacts include feeling unsafe, disrespected, misunderstood and socially isolated. Discrimination can also affect kids through difficulty obtaining appropriate housing, food insecurity, and being over-represented in the child-welfare system.

Bullying, violence

Bullying and violence were among other significant factors affecting kids, the report found.

One in five students in grades 4 to 12 said they felt unsafe or threatened at school due to how they behaved with others, their mental health, their marks in school, the way they speak and their family's financial status.

Bullying and violence are among the issues facing some kids. (Duncan McCue/CBC)

Kids in the province are victims of police-reported violence committed by family members and non-family members at a higher rate than the national average, and 21.9 per cent of students in grades 9 and 10 report being victims of teen dating violence.


The study urges the provincial government to take specific actions to improve the well-being and safety of the province's children. The authors offer 12 recommendations, including:

  • Passing legislation that requires an assessment of the impact on children's rights whenever new legislation, policies or programs are being implemented.
  • Creating youth panels within government departments.
  • Creating a poverty reduction plan, and passing legislation that future governments must adhere to a poverty reduction plan.
  • Giving leadership positions to people from groups that face racism and discrimination and developing plans to eliminate racism and discrimination in consultation with those leaders and their communities.
  • Ensuring rights outlined in international law and national and provincial consultations are acted on.
  • Passing legislation to establish an independent body dedicated to children and youth rights.
  • Passing legislation to collect data on child rights and well-being.

The data that forms the basis of the study was collected before the COVID-19 pandemic began, but Kirk said some newer data suggests the pandemic has negatively affected children, particularly those who rely on school food programs and who lack safe places to gather.



Frances Willick is a journalist with CBC Nova Scotia. Please contact her with feedback, story ideas or tips at