“Many things we need can wait. The child cannot. Now is the time his bones are being formed, his blood is being made, his mind is being developed. To him we cannot say tomorrow, his name is today.” — Gabriela Mistral, Chilean Poet
More than 32.4 million (45 percent) of U.S. 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 in America live in poverty, a rate two to three times higher than that of other major industrial nations. 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 individuals or families but in the community, environment, society and policy arenas.
A child from the most violent, poverty stricken part of Philadelphia has a life expectancy of 20 years less than a child from Society Hill.
A study in JAMA Pediatrics showed that poverty was associated with smaller brain volumes in areas of the brain that are responsible for memory, for language, for self-control and for executive functioning.
That study is consistent with the fact that only 14 percent of fourth-graders in Philadelphia’s public schools are reading at grade level.
Dr. James Heckman, a Nobel Prize winning economist, has research that shows early nurturing, learning experiences and physical health from ages 0-5 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.
By investing early, America can gain a more capable, productive and valuable workforce that pays dividends for generations to come.
Investments in early childhood education like Pre-K for Pa. have been shown to ameliorate the effects of child poverty as have nutritional programs such as Women, Infants, and Children (WIC), Supplemtental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and school meals.
The Earned Income Tax Credit, increasing the minimum wage and Temporary Assistance for Needed Families can help lift children out of poverty. Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) and the Affordable Care Act have decreased uninsurance rates among children to an all-time low of 6 percent.
The Nurse-Family Partnership as well as parenting programs help children bond with the most important buffer against poverty, a stable supportive adult in their lives.
The rising child poverty rate is an indictment of America. To have 20 pernt 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.
“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
Dr. Pat Bruno lives in Lewisburg.