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Integrating Child/Youth Development Concepts in Economic Development

Integrating Child/Youth Development Concepts in Economic Development

This week our #WednesdayswithMDBInsight post features Simon Webb, Research Analyst, sharing his thoughts about the integration of child/youth development concepts within economic development.

Following the COVID-19 pandemic, communities will undertake recovery efforts to mitigate its impact on everything from municipal revenues and economic development to workforce development and supply chain management, among other priorities. As plans and strategies take shape, highlighting the resilience of communities, their residents and their business communities, I encourage us to think about an important aspect of community development that may not be top of mind in post-pandemic economic thinking.

Economic development and child/youth policies are often thought of independently, but there is a significant opportunity to improve the economic development of a region through child development. Supporting child and youth development can significantly improve the amount of healthy, skilled and productive residents in the area, making these regions more attractive from a workforce perspective to prospective businesses. Healthy communities are also more enticing for new potential residents to the area.

During the youngest years of the human lifespan, neurological development occurs at the fastest rate compared to any other stage. The brain reacts to social and environmental stresses by adapting, so the impacts of these stresses at a young age are carried with people throughout their entire lives - a process called biological embedding.

All children experience good and bad stresses, but bad stresses are disproportionately experienced by individuals of low socioeconomic status and minority groups. Particularly impactful are long-standing stresses like lasting poverty, family turmoil, poor nutrition and sub-optimal mental stimulation. Children who grow up in these circumstances reach lower levels of education and academic/career achievement later in life on average and can be at a higher risk for unemployment, poor health, drug/alcohol problems, etc. Further, there is an inter-generational aspect since these adults tend to have worsened circumstances for their children.

It has been shown that investing in children at an early age has a much higher return to society per dollar spent than investing later in life (i.e. through unemployment, policing, adult training programs, etc.). While many of these societal impacts occur within provincial jurisdiction (healthcare costs) many also affect the municipal and regional levels of government (crime, unemployment, homelessness, social services, etc.).

There are many possible interventions and supports that can be implemented to counteract the sub-optimal circumstances in which many children grow up. Some are at the provincial government-level such as through education and healthcare. Communities and regions also have a role to play, with the physical and social environments they create. Areas and neighbourhoods which are safe, stimulating and which encourage positive social interaction allow children and youth to explore, play and learn without fear. Specific programs and initiatives can also be developed to address any issues identified in specific communities.

Economists such as James Heckman have devised ways to demonstrate the predicted value of investments in child development within a community. The ability to predict and demonstrate this value would be highly important to communities, since the economic impacts of these investments don’t occur immediately but promote sustained long-term growth.

Heckman’s position advocates for enriching early environments to partially compensate for early adversity: “studies demonstrate substantial positive effects of early environmental enrichment on a range of cognitive and noncognitive skills, schooling achievement, job performance, and social behaviors” he says. In the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic there are opportunities for communities to incorporate these concepts into their policy planning and recovery efforts by asking what “environmental enrichment” might look like.

Investing in mental and developmental health offers collaborative and integrated opportunities for municipalities beyond the supports anticipated from higher tiers of government. Young people under 30 and children are among the at-risk groups for long-term mental health issues stemming from the current pandemic, together with healthcare workers who are on the frontline, the elderly and those in precarious situations, for example, owing to mental illness, disability and poverty (Dr Elke Van Hoof, World Economic Forum, April 9, 2020). And, importantly, a recent review of the evidence published by The Lancet cited study findings of post-traumatic stress scores being four times higher in children who had been quarantined than in those who were not quarantined.

When the pandemic is over, policymakers will face a transformed landscape. Economic policy will have to be reshaped around a fundamental review of objectives, instruments and institutions. A new political, social and environmental context will challenge efforts to restore economic growth. Indeed, our previous preoccupation with growth, mobility, and optimisation will likely give way to a new emphasis on equality, sustainability and agility.

Mark Cliffe, Pandenomics – Policymaking in a post-pandemic world, April 13, 2020 (

Important conversations will be continuing as economic development professionals and municipal leaders consider the implications of COVID-19 and the required next steps for recovery. I am hopeful these discussions will include consideration of child/youth development and, especially, mental and developmental health investments that bring potential for integrated and forward-thinking returns.

To learn more about Simon and the other members of our team, go to

Simon 2019 Our Wednesdays with MDB Insight posts feature the thinkers and doers on our team sharing ideas and talking about what’s important to us as professionals. We have very diverse backgrounds and a range of interests to share with you. We hope you’re enjoying these posts and that you will join the conversation with us and let us know what’s on your mind mid-week.

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