Child Trends and the Robert R. McCormick Foundation recently issued The Youngest Americans, a comprehensive indicators-based portrait of the 12 million infants and toddlers (ages birth through two years) in the U.S. Drawing on emerging developmental science and new data sources, the report provides a revealing look at this most fragile, and most promising, stage of life.
Prolonged economic hardship, especially when experienced in early childhood, does more than impoverish families and communities: it actually alters the biology of the developing brain. While a majority of America’s youngest children are doing well by many measures of well-being, one-quarter (about 3 million) live in families with incomes below the federal poverty line; one in eight lives in deep poverty (in families with incomes less than half the poverty level); and more than half a million survive on less than two dollars a day. Among developed nations, only Romania has a higher rate of relative poverty among children.
Of our youngest children, white non-Hispanics make up fewer than half (49 percent). Hispanic infants and toddlers comprise 26 percent of the total, black, 14 percent, and Asian, five percent. While the new majority will offer much in shaping 21st-century America, many start out in life with severe economic and social disadvantages. Parents of black and Hispanic infants and toddlers are much more likely than are parents of young white children to have significant concerns about their children’s development. Black infants are 60 percent more likely than whites to be born prematurely. Hispanic infants and toddlers are much less likely than their white counterparts to have family members read to them, sing to them, or tell them stories. One-third of America’s youngest children live in households where a language other than English is spoken.
However, for some parents of young children, employment often provides precarious economic security, particularly for single mothers, and is accompanied by uneven access to high-quality child care. In addition, the U.S. is alone among developed countries in having no guaranteed paid parental leave. Parenting itself is a difficult job under even the best of circumstances, but parents of infants and toddlers who live in poverty are more than three times as likely as those in more affluent families to report stress in parenting. Black and Hispanic parents are more likely than their white counterparts to report parenting stress.
Exposure to violence (either as victim, or as witness); severe neglect; chronic poverty; and family disruption due to death, mental illness, divorce or parental separation can precipitate toxic levels of stress that alter the ways that a child’s brain and body function. If not addressed within the context of a supportive relationship with a caregiver, effects can last into adulthood, increasing susceptibility to serious illness and behavior problems. The prevalence of two or more adverse experiences (excluding financial hardship) is more than four times as high among infants and toddlers living in poverty as it is among their more affluent counterparts.
For example, only about one in four children under age three whose families could benefit from a home visit receives one. Only four in ten receive developmental screenings. One-tenth of infants and toddlers eligible for a child care subsidy receive it. Six in 100 eligible for Early Head Start are enrolled. One in eleven has no health insurance coverage. As our children get ready for life, that’s not much of a platform, let alone a safety net.
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