Poverty Impacts Health, Education of Children

Since President Lyndon B. Johnson declared a war on poverty in 1964, the rate of young children in poverty has only slightly decreased.
“It is the case that children are more often poor than older adults, but within the child population, younger children are more often poor,” said Kristin Moore, senior scholar and co-director of youth development at Child Trends, a nonpartisan research center focused on the well-being of children and youth. “One of the reasons younger children are poorer is that their parents are younger and, therefore, they are more exposed to poverty.”
Moore noted during a recent webinar sponsored by The Council of State Governments that poverty harms children’s brains, negatively affects how the body and mind develop, alters the fundamental architecture of the brain and makes a difference not only in their present functioning, but also in their future endeavors. She said children in poverty have an increased likelihood of chronic illness and poor physical health, as well as future substance abuse that extends into adulthood. Shortened life expectancies also are more likely due to the various physical and environmental conditions. 
Children growing up in poverty tend to lack food security and have a nutrient-poor diet, Moore said. She said these children often lack preventive physical and mental health care and they often are stuck in neighborhoods with high concentrations of poverty. Researchers have found this combination is associated with negative academic outcomes, social and behavior problems and a lack of proper childhood development.
Parents in poverty face numerous challenges that affect their children, including higher levels of stress, depression and difficulty planning, preparing and providing their family’s material needs, according to Moore. Homes in impoverished families include fewer books and educational resources and children have fewer opportunities to take family outings to enhance and enrich their educational learning opportunities, she said.
Moore noted that starting in infancy, children growing up in poverty display gaps in key areas of learning, knowledge and socioeconomic development when compared to economically more secure peers. Left unattended, those gaps become wider. Economically disadvantaged students are not as prepared as their peers in kindergarten, as well as lag behind in reading ability by third grade and in school attendance by eighth grade. In addition, she said, those students are more likely to drop out of school and fail to obtain a postsecondary education.
Child Trends suggests early intervention is key to reducing the harmful effects of poverty.
“There is consistent research that high-quality early childhood education improves outcomes for at-risk children,” said Moore. “This is a topic under great discussion at the state and national levels. Both academics and economists have reported on the benefits of investing in early childhood education, particularly for at-risk young children.”
Moore and Ron Haskins—co-director of the Center on Children and FamiliesBudgeting for National Priorities and senior fellow of economic studies at The Brookings Institution—said a focus on improving family conditions  and providing training and employment opportunities will reduce the negative impact on children. A child’s family sets the stage for positive developmental outcomes and provides materials and social and emotional support for children, he said.
“Poverty, low parental education and stress can compromise the quality of family relationships and a child’s involvement in experiences that enrich development,” said Moore. “Family support programs can act to increase family engagement and parents’ knowledge of child development and then reduce stress, provide work support and help them access health and nutrition service, job training or treatment for substance abuse.”
Haskins noted the importance of providing employability skills for mothers and engaging them in the workforce. He said states must assume responsibility to help mothers find jobs and provide options for mothers to escape the grip of poverty.
“If we can’t reduce the poverty rate among children in female-headed families, we are not going to make progress against poverty,” said Haskins. “The reason for that is children in female-headed families are four to five times as likely to be poor as children in married-couple families. That family form, children living with their mother without a father, is increasing rapidly and has been for at least 40 years.”
Haskins said to reduce the rates of poverty and its negative impact, people must follow three basic rules: complete high school, work full time, and wait until age 21 and marry before having children.
“If individuals follow all three rules, they have a 72 percent chance of living in the middle class, three times above the poverty level, and only 2 percent chance of living in poverty,” Haskins said. “If you look at individuals that don’t follow any of those norms, the numbers are almost reversed—they have a 4 percent chance of living in the middle class and a 77 percent chance of being poor.”
The speakers offered five considerations for policymakers:
  • Support high-quality preschools—Streamline funds between Head Start, preschool, child care and state pre-kindergarten programs;
  • Invest in public school reform—Fund inner-city schools and those with a high ratio of poor children;
  • Implement home visiting programs—Target disadvantaged families and single mothers from pregnancy through age 3;
  • Prevent teen pregnancy—Offer support programs to reduce unwanted pregnancy; and
  • Integrate Data systems—Work with all data systems in your state to learn what programs work and utilize that data to make informed decisions.

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