Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Seven Lessons about Child Poverty

The article is good, but seems unaware of the effects of inadequate nutrition before birth and in early childhood on a person's health, including the brain.

The official child poverty rate in the United States stands at 20 percent, the second-highest among its developed counterparts, for a total of almost 15 million children. Since the 2008 recession, 1.7 million more kids have fallen into poverty, according to UNICEF’s relative measure of poverty.

Compared to other age groups, a much higher share of Americans aged 0 to 18 are impoverished.


Why are we allowing so many Americans to start their lives in poverty, knowing that it likely will do them significant long-term damage, as well as limit our growth as a nation? It is a blow to our nation’s dedication to equal opportunity.

That question is especially perplexing because relatively simple, proven approaches would address some of the worst impacts of child poverty. What follows are seven lessons drawn from The Century Foundation’s Bernard L. Schwartz Rediscovering Government Initiative conference last June, Inequality Begins at Birth, that would help us tackle gaps in our public policy, as part of the Initiative’s equal opportunity agenda. The lessons are as follows:

1. The Stress of Childhood Poverty Is Costly for the Brain and Bank Accounts

2. Child Poverty Is Not Distributed Equally

3. The Power of Parental Education

4. Higher Minimum Wage Is a Minimum Requirement

5. Workplaces Need to Recognize Parenthood

6. Government Works

7. Cash Allowances Are Effective


your environment can actually alter the expression of your genes, creating interactions between the two, rather than separating them.

This finding has important implications for child poverty policy.

If environmental shortcomings can actually affect the expression of a child’s genes, then childhood poverty may well affect a child’s neurological development, creating deficiencies that persist throughout the child’s lifetime. Although we have known about correlations between child poverty and negative outcomes, such as poor health, we now understand the biological reasons behind this phenomenon.

The main conclusion? Growing up in poverty can directly damage development of a child’s brain.

These kinds of findings are the cornerstone of epigenetics, the field of study that examines how genes are turned on or off during our lifetime due to environmental factors.


For example, a study done by Marcus Pembrey examined forty men, half of whom were born into rich households, and the other half into poor ones, looking for differences. At 45 years of age, the men’s epigenetic patterns varied according to the wealth and income levels of their childhood homes, not their adult ones.

This study, while small, nevertheless suggests that income-correlated epigenetic changes that occur during childhood development stick around for life.

[Maybe even for generations.]


Growing up in poverty exacerbates negative environmental factors for children. Scientists label the immediate, physiological result “toxic stress.”

Humans have specific hormones that are released when our bodies sense danger. These “stress” hormones are released in emergency situations, such as if we were to be attacked by a predator. Scientists have recently discovered that, with repeated exposure to stressful situations, our bodies release high levels of these toxic stress hormones—overtaxing our bodies in ways that actually rewire our brains.

For children living in poverty, toxic stress is a common occurrence.


But childhood need not be so obviously traumatic to create adverse effects. Studies have found that even repeated but relatively low-levels of stress inducers—such as hearing gunshots at a distance, or the lack of quality time with parents—can induce toxic stress. On the most basic level, time spent with children is a luxury low-income parents often cannot afford.

The end result of childhood toxic stress is lasting. Over-production of stress hormones can switch off genes necessary for healthy neuronal connections and strong development later in life.

About 90 percent of a child’s brain development occurs before the age of five. In the first few years, as many as 700 neurons form a connection per second. When toxic stress interferes with these connections, it affects a child's neurological development, leading to lifelong problems.

Children who experience seven to eight ACEs, such as abuse, physical neglect, or household dysfunction, are three times more likely to have cardiovascular disease as an adult.

Neurons that have been exposed to toxic stress are underdeveloped, with weaker and fewer connections.


Twenty percent of children under age 18 are poor, compared to 23 percent of children under age 5.


The numbers are even worse for African American and Hispanic children. Forty-two percent of African American children under age 5 are poor, meaning that the odds of an African American child being born poor are just about the same as the same child’s odds of graduating college. Thirty-six percent of Hispanic children under age 5 are poor.

If we dig deeper, we see that not only are a large number of children under age 5 poor, half of them are extremely poor—that is, living in households whose annual income is under half of the poverty line, currently $11,641 for a family of four (an already outdated measure).


In the late 1960s, the Perry Preschool Study enrolled children born into poverty and at high risk of failure into a high-quality preschool.

The researchers found that the children in the study had higher earnings, were better educated, and less likely to be incarcerated than the control group—and that those improvements were still visible over forty years later.


“I’ve never met a parent who didn’t want to give their child a head start, they just don’t know how,” stated Yolanda Minor, a home visiting specialist from Early Steps to School Success (ESSS), at the Inequality Begins at Birth conference.

One family that Minor worked with consisted of a single mother and her child living with her grandparents. When Minor came into the household, the 1-year-old, Michael, was not speaking at all. She brought books into their household and encouraged the mother to read to her son, but the grandparents ridiculed their efforts, stating, “he doesn’t understand what you’re saying . . . you are all wasting your time.”

After a few more visits, as they saw Michael speaking and improving, the grandparents also started reading to him. When he reached age 5, Michael’s vocabulary tested the age-equivalent of an 8-year-old.

If brain development (and inequality, for that matter) begins at birth, then so, too, should education—for both children and their parents.


By the time a child is just 18 months old, disparities arise between the vocabularies of poor and wealthy children. Unfortunately, low-income households are often correlated with poor parental education and a lack of resources to change this.


By some estimates, the rate of return for early childhood programs is approximately $4–$10 for every $1 invested.


America has a virtual army of full-time working parents, many of whom remain below the poverty line. Many of those parents hold minimum-wage jobs. (The idea that most minimum-wage workers are teenagers is a myth. The truth is that the average minimum-wage worker is 35 years old, female, and works full-time. Furthermore, 28 percent of minimum-wage workers are parents.)

A minimum-wage employee working full-time earns an annual income of $15,080. But the federal poverty threshold for a three-person family (one adult and two children) is $18,776.

[Be real, how is $19,000/year with two kids not poverty level?]

But even looking at the poverty line understates the real depth of the problem. America’s official poverty line is low. To take one estimate, a more realistic number for an actual average basic budget for a family of three is somewhere around $40,273, according to the Economic Policy Institute’s (EPI) Family Budget Calculator.

That revised income is almost three times the amount a full-time worker makes from minimum wage. So, even a two-parent family with just one child would struggle if both parents worked full time at the minimum wage.


Another common misconception is that raising the minimum wage would cause workers to lose their jobs.

The economic consensus shows that this is not the case. Even during rough economic times, raising the minimum wage has no adverse effect on employment. An examination of sixty-four different minimum-wage studies challenges this idea.


The day before her miscarriage, her physician instructed her to work light duty—no lifting of heavy boxes.

But lifting heavy boxes was her regular job requirement as an associate at Walmart, the world’s largest private employer.

Holmes’s manager refused to comply with her physician’s orders—even though the directive was one that was regularly granted to employees with disabilities. A single mother with a child on the way, Holmes couldn’t afford to lose her job. So she lifted boxes as required.

The next day, she miscarried. And her employer refused to provide her with leave to recover.


Out of 178 countries, the United States is one of just three that does not offer paid maternity leave. (The other two are Papua New Guinea and Swaziland.)

U.S. employers fail to pick up the slack, with only 11 percent of private and 17 percent of public sector workers receiving paid family leave. While employers are required to provide up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act, this is often an unfeasible option for parents living paycheck to paycheck.


In the United States, 11 million children under the age of 5 are in some type of child care, each one clocking an average of about thirty-six hours per week. We now know that this is the most crucial time of a child’s life, yet high-quality child care is far out of the reach of many parents, forcing them to economize on their children’s future.

When you realize that the average annual income for a full-time child care professional is just under $21,500, it’s not hard to see why high-quality child care is hard to come by. While that salary is about $100 more than we pay parking lot attendants, it is still less than we pay housekeepers. When child care is not valued, we get what we pay for—and it’s our kids who suffer. As we’ve seen, most of brain development happens while our children are still of typical child care age.


But despite the undervalued nature of child care, for parents, it is still a costly undertaking. Annual out-of-pocket child care costs for parents are, on average, more than yearly costs to enroll their children in public universities. This is partly because spending on the Child Care Development and Block Grant (CCDBG), the primary source for public assistance of child care, has remained stagnant since 2002, serving only one out of every six eligible children, leaving most parents to fend for themselves.


At the moment, government’s most effective tool for addressing child poverty has been refundable tax credits, such as the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) and the Child Tax Credit (CTC), which lift almost 5 million children out of poverty.

Unfortunately, as Robert Greenstein noted at the Inequality Begins at Birth conference, recent expansions of these credits are scheduled to expire in 2017.


The average credit a family with children receives from EITC is around $3,000. To some, it might not seem like much, but it’s easy to overlook the importance of an extra $3,000 per year for a family living in poverty. Debts can be paid off, parents can make car payments so that they can drive to work, or afford child care and healthier food.


Evidence debunks the myth that cash for the poor would go to drugs and alcohol. In fact, according to a British study, high-income parents were actually more likely than low-income parents to spend extra income from an increase in child benefit amounts on alcohol and tobacco. To put the point another way, low-income families prioritized spending on their children to a greater extent than did high-income families.


among thirty-five economically advanced countries evaluated by a 2012 report by UNICEF, the United States was the only country that did not have some sort of child benefit plan. Given that the United States also has the second highest child poverty rate in the same cohort (topped only by Romania), we’d do well to listen and learn.


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