We read a fascinating piece in the March 21 New Yorker about the lasting damage caused by childhood trauma and anxiety. It cites new medical research that high levels of stress early in life produce physiological changes that contribute to all kinds of long-term problems – like high blood pressure, obesity, and diabetes, but also learning disabilities and depression. Kids who’ve suffered abuse and neglect, lost contact with their parents, or been shuffled between foster families have real trouble with school, relationships – and ultimately work and parenthood.
There’s a cycle here and the ultimate losers are children, many of whom start life with the deck stacked against them. Although family stress and dysfunction aren’t dictated by income, these problems are more pervasive and generally more severe among poor families and children.
Poor children abound – one out of every five is poor – and those who are born poor are likely to stay poor for many years. Half of American babies born into poor families will be poor for at least half their childhoods – persistently poor. The differences by race are stark. Roughly a third of white children and two thirds of black children who are poor at birth are persistently poor as children. The emerging research on the link between childhood stress and deprivation and longer-term health problems and psychological changes helps explain why children who are born poor are more likely to be poor as young adults, drop out of high school, have their own babies as teens, and never find steady work.
Children Born Poor Face a High Risk of Persistent Poverty
Family dysfunction isn’t the only source of trauma and stress in the lives of kids. Children growing up in distressed neighborhoods may witness violent crimes, lose friends or family members to violence, or become victims themselves. More and more research shows that growing up in a deeply poor neighborhood is bad for kids’ health and bad for their long-term life chances.
So what’s the prescription? Home-visiting, parenting, and relationship counseling programs can improve family functioning and the home environment of vulnerable children. New opportunities arising from health reform should be used to connect new mothers, many of whom suffer from depression, with health insurance, so they can get help with both physical and emotional problems. Although income isn’t the whole story, helping parents find and keep decent jobs can improve their children’s future prospects by making the whole family more secure economically. And programs that help poor families find affordable housing in safe neighborhoods can reduce kids’ exposure to the ravages of crime and violence.
If we want to give poor children a real shot at escaping poverty, we should protect them from trauma and – when that fails – help them heal.