"We are true to our creed when a little girl born into the bleakest poverty knows that she has the same chance to succeed as anybody else, because she is an American, she is free, and she is equal not just in the eyes of God, but also in our own." -- President Barack Obama
Over 32.4 million US children live in low-income families with 16 million (22 percent) living below the federal poverty level ($22,000 with a family of four). According to the National Center for Children in Poverty, 20 percent of children under age 6 live in poverty, a rate two to three times higher than that of other major industrial nations. Poverty is a major determinant of health and a significant factor in perpetuating health disparities. Poverty has many faces; from hunger to homelessness to hopelessness.
Furthermore, we know that poverty in childhood has a long and lasting impact on the child well into adulthood by creating toxic stress on the developing child. That toxic stress contributes to increased rates of asthma, obesity, dental caries, injuries, mental health problems, HIV infections, and tobacco exposure in children who live in poverty. The factors contributing to these increased rates reside not only with individual or family but in the community, environment, society and policy arenas.
Poverty is strongly linked with child neglect. It can be construed as a form of societal neglect, particularly in a country with enormous resources. However, most low-income families are not neglectful of their children. Conversely, neglect is hardly limited to poor families.
The U.S. government actually has an action plan for children in adversity. The goal of the plan is to achieve a world in which all children grow up within protective family care and free from deprivation, exploitation and danger. The plan is grounded in evidence that shows a promising future belongs to those nations that invest wisely in their children while failure to do so undermines social and economic progress.
Dr. James J. Heckman, a Nobel Prize winning economist, has research showing early nurturing, learning experiences and physical health from birth to 5 greatly impact success or failure in society. The most economically efficient time to develop skills and social abilities is in the very early years when developmental education is most effective. According to Dr. Heckman, disadvantaged families are least likely to have the economic and social resources to provide early developmental stimulation every child needs as a basic opportunity for future success in school, college, career and life. Therefore, it is important to invest in educational and developmental resources for disadvantaged families to provide equal access to successful early human development.
The problem, unfortunately, is in our priorities. As an example, America spends more on defense than the next 10 countries combined. Meanwhile, the average expenditure for public schooling is $7,000-$18,000 a year per student. Why not begin at age birth? From birth to age 3 there is tremendous amount of brain growth but very little public spending during a crucial period of a child's life. For ages zero-three that would be on average about a $50 billion investment. Think about the return on that investment. Perhaps the $245 billion now spent annually on mental health problems for our children and adolescents would decrease substantially. Instead, the government spends $34 million on a military base in Afghanistan it will never use.
Children's brain health needs are often not met. One study of youth between ages 9 and 17 years found that only 38 percent of children meeting stringent criteria for a psychiatric diagnosis in the prior 6 months had had a mental health contact in the previous year. Neglected dental care is widespread. A study of preschoolers found that 49 percent of 4-year olds had cavities and fewer than 10 percent were treated. Another study found that 8.6 percent of kindergarteners needed urgent dental care.
Neglected health care in America is not rare, and if access to health care and health insurance is a basic need in the United States today, 8.7 million (11.7 percent) children experience this form of neglect yearly.
The rising child poverty rate is an indictment of America. To have 20 percent of children under 6 living in poverty is unacceptable. We are marching in the wrong direction, and we cannot continue to cut essential services for children and families and remain a strong nation.
Dr. Pat Bruno, Selinsgrove