More than one in five children in the United States is growing up in poverty—a number that should alarm us. Even more alarming is that more and more of these children are living in neighborhoods of concentrated poverty and disadvantage, exposing them to serious risks that may trap them in lifelong poverty.
The health consequences of living in poverty are well-documented. We know that poverty places children at risk for a range of serious ailments, starting with premature birth and low birth weight and chronic conditions like asthma, obesity, diabetes, and mental illness.
Growing up in neighborhoods with concentrated poverty and disadvantage compounds the risk. Children in these communities are exposed to chronic violence and disorder, leading to trauma and serious health and behavioral consequences that undermine their life chances. Researchers studying the effects of toxic stress on developing brains have shown stress creates developmental delays with lifelong consequences. These children face a high likelihood of academic failure, risky and delinquent behavior, and early sexual initiation, which brings the potential for teen parenthood and infection with HIV or other STIs. The costs to individual children and families—and to society—are profound.
Would treating childhood poverty as a disease finally generate the policy action needed to address this serious and growing problem? Author and pediatrician Perri Klass argues that we need this kind of comprehensive effort to start reversing the worrying trends that are undermining the health of America’s children. She advocates for an approach like the successful effort in the United Kingdom that has reduced child poverty by more than half over the past decade.
Rallying support for bold policy action to stem the epidemic of child poverty will take time, especially in the current political climate. In the meantime, we need effective interventions that can alleviate the symptoms of the “disease.”
The Urban Institute’s HOST Demonstration is developing and testing the effectiveness of using two-generation “whole family” approaches to address the challenges of deeply poor, vulnerable families living in public and assisted housing. HOST services are intended to improve children’s health outcomes and reduce risky behavior, helping to overcome some of the disadvantages of growing up in chronic disadvantage.
But clearly, even the best interventions will not be enough to eliminate child poverty in the United States. I hope that Dr. Klass and her fellow pediatricians will take the lead in advocating for policy to treat child poverty-- an epidemic disease with serious social costs that requires a serious and effective public health response.
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