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federal election

Politicians are trickling out promised tax credits this election like Halloween treats. There's money for home renovation credits, breaks on your Rotary Club memberships, classroom supplies for teachers. That's not counting the universal child-care cheques already arriving monthly in the mail to every parent, or current tax breaks for hockey and piano lessons.

These credits will cost Ottawa plenty. But in a time of tight budgets, is all that money changing behaviour and stimulating the economy, or is it just blowing away?

Take the child fitness credit that covers sports fees, and costs Ottawa $150-million.

If you're a working, poor family who can't even cover registration for a sports team – let alone out-of-town tournaments – that little tax break, which maxes out at $150 depending on the level of taxes you pay, and arrives months after hockey season, doesn't go far. And if you're already rich enough to shell out thousands for competitive hockey, will you even notice that the government chipped in for your kid's carbon composite hockey stick?

The latter is what social policy researchers call a windfall gain – money that drifts unexpectedly into your pocket, but doesn't change your behaviour.

That always happens to some extent, explains Jean-Pierre Voyer, the president of the Ottawa-based Social Research Demonstration Corporation, which studies programs for their effectiveness. But if you're designing, say, a plan to get kids more active by helping parents with fees, you don't want the bulk of it to go to kids who would be playing sports no matter what. Otherwise, says Voyer, "the government has accomplished nothing. It has basically wasted money." The same goes for the children's art credit: covering a fraction of the cost hardly helps low-income families pay for piano lessons.

What's more, research shows that giving more to poorer families is good for the economy: It's stress-reducing, nation-building stimulus spending.

Research in both Canada and the United States shows that rich and poor families tend to spend their tax breaks in very different ways.

Wealthier families are more likely to sock it away.

Lower-income families, on the other hand, spend the extra money on food, housing, car repairs, education for their kids. Despite unfounded stereotypes, this is far from beer-and-smoke money. On the contrary, a 2015 working paper published by the National Bureau of Economic Research found that as child benefits to poor Canadian families increased, there were large drops in alcohol and tobacco spending and improvements in well-being, for both parents and kids.

The finding is the same in the United States, where the earned income tax credit gives thousands of dollars to people working low-paying jobs. The increased benefits have also been linked to better outcomes for their kids: better school performance, college enrolment and higher earnings in adulthood.

What appears important, however, is not only that the money arrives in a timely way, but also that the benefit is large enough to tip the balance on the family budget.

That's a chief criticism of the pricey Universal Child Care Benefit, created by the Conservatives – it barely dents the cost of daycare for a struggling family, and everyone gets the same amount. It's also taxable, so while wealthier families have to pay more back, even lower middle-class households will have to return some of it.

(Income splitting for parents with kids under 18 is another expensive Conservative policy that the Parliamentary Budget Officer found would benefit only 15 per cent of middle-income and higher-middle-income families.)

One might also quibble with the NDP's $15-a-day child care plan, which will roll out slowly: The details would have to be hammered out with the provinces, but giving low-income families first dibs on the low-fee spots should be a priority. The NDP has said it will keep the UCCB, but add another $500-million for low-income families, delivered through existing tax benefits.

In terms of putting money expeditiously into the hands of poor families, the National Child Benefit proposed by the Liberals, arguably works best. It will cost $6-billion, but families who earn more than $192,000 get nothing. It works on a relatively steep sliding scale: A family of four earning $90,000 would would receive $5,875 a year, according to Liberal numbers.

For the lowest-income families, the new benefit would mean a maximum of $6,400 a year for a child under the age of 6, and $5,400 for children between 6 and 17 – what the party has called a guaranteed annual income for the country's poorest kids. Plus, none of it's taxed back.

These are tight times, and governments can't afford to toss money where it makes little difference, beyond buying votes. Targeting government spending with well-designed programs to improve child outcomes and supporting poor families with education expenses and other basic costs ultimately serves the country and the economy – a windfall with long-term benefits for everyone.