Canadian Journal of Public Health
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Objectives: To examine the link between stability and change in social assistance (SA) use and children’s mental health trajectories to better understand whether social policies targeted at low-income families might be an effective population-based mechanism for preventing mental health problems among children at risk. Methods: The National Longitudinal Survey of Children and Youth (N = 8981) is used to classify children into 5 categories based on their family’s pattern of SA use from age 4–5 to 10–11: always or never on SA, a single transition on or off SA, or fluctuations on and off SA. Latent growth modelling is used to compare trajectories of emotional and behavioural problems among children with different patterns of SA exposure to their counterparts never on SA over this same time period. Results: Child emotional and behavioural problems are exacerbated over time in accordance with patterns of SA use: chronic SA use (behavioural) and moving onto SA (emotional and behavioural). These differential rates of change result in mental health disparities at age 10–11 that were not present at age 4–5. Children exposed to SA when they were age 4–5 but subsequently moved off continue to demonstrate elevated levels of emotional and behavioural problems at age 10–11. Conclusions: Successful social policies and interventions will require understanding the specific mechanisms through which SA undermines child mental health and how programs can be modified to reduce its negative consequences.