The serious effects of poverty on children
When you put the words ‘poverty’ and ‘children’ together, it’s easy to form a picture in your mind and think of a sad statistical minority. But, according to the 2017 report from the National Center for Children in Poverty, 43 percent of children in this country live in low-income families and an additional 21 percent live in poverty. Many more children live in families with incomes just above the poverty threshold.
Massachusetts is not exempt from this problem. Currently 44 percent of children in Massachusetts are using the free or reduced lunch program and that number has risen each year.
According to Project Bread, more than 200,000 children in Massachusetts have a parent that earns less than $11 an hour. It’s not a coincidence that the same number of children skips at least one meal a day. Today, post-recession, the rate of household hunger in this state is 71 percent higher than it was just a decade ago.
The implications of such widespread poverty are serious. A study published in JAMA Pediatrics in July 2015 indicates that poorer children develop smaller brains. The researchers suggest that this could explain why there is as much as a 20 percent achievement gap between students from low income brackets and their wealthier peers.
“We’ve known for a while that there is a higher rate of poor cognitive and academic performance in children living in poverty, but now we really know why,” said pediatrician Kathryn Rudman, MD, at Seaside Pediatrics in West Yarmouth. “When we see these studies that show these actual brain changes it is really frightening, especially when you consider the number of kids that fit into this poverty level.”
Even though the subject of poverty is a sensitive one, it’s important to put political correctness aside because this information needs to be talked about in more forums, she said.
“These are our neighbors, these are our kids’ friends, and it really takes a village of teachers and other parents and pediatricians and anybody that interacts with kids to fix this problem, because there are so many things that can help,” Dr. Rudman said.
Helping Parents Too
The answer is not just helping the child, but the parents, as well, so they can provide support and education, she said. At her pediatric practice, doctors regularly refer children to programs like Early Intervention, Head Start, the Boys & Girls Club and the YMCA where they can find positive connections with other children and learn healthy habits. They also give out free books to children at every wellness visit as part of the Reach Out and Read program.
Programs like Early Intervention and Head Start are especially important because intervention in the early years is critical. A study published in The American Journal of Psychiatry in January 2016 indicates that children who experience poverty measured by an income-to-needs ratio at the pre-school age are more likely to suffer from depression later in life.
“The studies are very clear,” said Anne Colwell, CEO of Cape Cod Child Development. “For the first time we have real research and data that is very consistent to what we are seeing with the children.”