Poverty is a harmful toxin in the lives of children. It is a lifelong environmental toxin that affects children in the short-term and the long-term. It affects school achievement, educational attainment, adult earnings, social-emotional growth and physical health well into adulthood.
If that is the case, why don’t we treat this toxin more seriously? Why don’t we devote the necessary resources to bring about effective change? The skeptical reader will say that the war on poverty back in the 1960s did not bring about effective change. Well actually, the war on poverty did make a difference in the early days and there is evidence of some sustained changes in the adult population. But for children, we accept that far too many are living in poverty along with the harmful effects of poverty. Largely due to the economic COVID-19 stimulus packages, current rate of childhood poverty is down to 10%. Personally, I consider this a catastrophic failure for our children (but it is an improvement). And even worse, almost 3% of children live in deep poverty, and the income for such households is usually unable to meet a child’s basic needs.
There actually is some good news if we want to help children. Previous policy papers by the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) have outlined ways to make a difference. We now have some documented proven strategies if we choose to invest the appropriate resources. Let’s review some of them—
- Tax policies and financial aid—Families living in poverty cannot provide for their basic needs even if employed and receiving the minimum wage. It is a sobering exercise to see that minimum wage is insufficient to provide for a family. Raising the minimum wage should always be a part of this discussion. But there are also other ways that can provide some potential relief. Earned income tax credit, child tax credit, and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) have all been shown to have some positive benefits but truthfully, they are still inadequate.
- Comprehensive Health Care—Children living in poverty should never be denied basic health care. The Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) and Medicaid are of great benefit but still not sufficient. Children with private insurance can get some services through their insurance that children without private insurance cannot get. That just isn’t right and needs to be changed. Also, parents living in poverty need adequate insurance to maximize their own health and provide a healthier environment for their children.
- Early Childhood Education—Early childhood education can be divided into two parts – “very” early childhood education (such as home visitation programs for infants) and “later” early childhood education (such as Early Head Start and Head Start programs). The home visitation programs have been shown to provide dramatic benefit and should be expanded for at-risk families. It has been estimated that the return on investment for all early childhood education programs might be as high as $2-17 for every dollar spent.
- Recognition of the intergenerational nature of poverty—It is now clear that families affected with poverty are in a potential cycle to “pass” on multiple problems to their offspring. Strategies to reduce poverty and improve outcomes have been shown to break this cycle and are very encouraging.
The science behind interventions is becoming even clearer. A recent study just published in 2022 demonstrated that enhanced financial support to families living in poverty can “improve” their children’s brain wave activity. Yes, that’s right – there appears to be a correlation between poverty reduction intervention and infant brain activity. Baby’s First Years study (www.babysfirstyears.com) randomized 1,000 low-income children living in four different areas. One group received $333/month, and one group received $20/month for the first several years of life. There were no restrictions on how to spend the money. The researchers then studied brain activity (by EEG) at 1 year of age. Brain activity that is consistent later in childhood with enhanced cognitive functioning and development was seen statistically more often in the higher-cash payment group. The authors note that “in the context of greater economic resources, children’s experiences changed, and their brain activity adapted to those experiences…[and those patterns] have been shown to be associated with the development of subsequent cognitive skills.” More studies are needed to attempt to analyze the specific factors at play here, but the preliminary evidence is clear. The “playbook” for fighting childhood poverty and its toxic effects just got bigger and better.
The take-home message is actually straightforward though the implementation takes social resolve. Effective measures to ameliorate the consequences of the toxic exposure of poverty in children are now available and have been proven in various research settings. We cannot afford not to invest in our children that are in vulnerable situations. The conclusion should be clear. We can pay now or pay even more later with more childhood disease, greater likelihood of juvenile justice problems and chronic disease in adults. All of these outcomes cost so much more and are preventable. Do we have the resolve and are we willing to really make a difference for children? I sure hope so.