Poverty’s Pernicious and Persistent Toll on Young Children

BlogEarly ChildhoodApr 15 2015

Every new parent has expectations that their child will have good health, do well in school, find a good job, and experience happiness in their personal and family life. For children born into poverty, meeting these expectations is much harder.

Children are the poorest age group in the country, and among children, the youngest are the poorest.  In 2013, 20 percent of all children in the U.S. were poor; 24 percent of children under age three were poor.  That’s 2.9 million children. Among black children, 43 percent are poor.  Among Hispanics more than one-third are poor.

At Child Trends, we’ve synthesized the research on the risks that poverty poses to children. The findings underscore the pernicious and persistent effects of poverty:

  • Poor children are more likely than other children to be in poor health and to have chronic health conditions. They are more likely to be born prematurely and at a low birth weight, and to develop later illnesses, such as respiratory diseases. As adolescents, they are more likely to have mental health problems and more likely to engage in risky behaviors, including smoking and becoming sexually active earlier than their peers who are not poor.
  • Poor children are also disproportionately exposed to risks that can impair their brain development. These risks include poor nutrition, maternal depression, parental substance abuse, trauma and abuse, environmental toxins, and decreased cognitive stimulation.  To illustrate this last point – we know that it is important to read to a child every day to support brain development and, yet, about 30 percent of poor children under age three are read to every day, compared with 60 percent of children under three in families with higher incomes.
  • Poverty in childhood and adolescence is associated with higher risks for poorer academic outcomes, lower school attendance, lower reading and math scores, increased distractibility, and higher rates of grade failure and dropout.  Poor children are also more likely than other children to have behavior problems, and are more likely to engage in delinquent behaviors during adolescence. Growing up in poverty is associated in adulthood with lower wages, poorer health, and deficits in working memory.

This would seem to be an air-tight case for eradicating poverty, or at the very least starting early to blunt its negative effects on children. But this research has been around for a while, and our nation’s response to it has been anemic relative to the size of the threat.  So we have to ask: What will it take to shake public complacency?

I want to suggest two areas of research that might be persuasive at this particular point in time.  The first builds on renewed attention to “the word gap.”  For at least two decades, research has focused on differences in vocabulary between young children from low-income  families and those from more affluent families – for the simple reason that the more words a child knows when she enters kindergarten, the more likely she is to succeed in school.

In the original “word gap” research in 1995, Hart and Risley found large differences in the size of young children’s vocabulary at 18 months, depending on whether their parents were from welfare, working class, or college-educated backgrounds.  They also found that these differences grew dramatically over time – so much so that, by age 4, children with college-educated parents had been exposed to 30 million more words than children whose parents were receiving welfare.

The second area of research builds on Hart and Risley’s work in looking at income-based difference in child outcomes. My colleagues at Child Trends, led by Tamara Halle, looked at children even younger than the 18-month-olds in the Hart and Risley study, and at a broader set of outcomes, including health and social and behavioral outcomes.  They found that, as early as nine months of age, there are income-based disparities in child outcomes.  Low-income children lagged behind other children across all of the domains examined:  cognitive, social, behavioral, and health. They also found that these gaps got wider between nine months of age and 24 months.

Given this research, we should be very concerned that so many young children are at risk of starting kindergarten with smaller vocabularies, poorer health, and less self-control than their more affluent peers. It’s like asking poor children to start a race ten yards back from everyone else and with their laces tied together. That’s how insidious poverty can be.

Overcoming these challenges isn’t easy – if it was, we’d have done it already.  But there are things we can do – and are already doing — that will make a difference. There is greater support for investments in high-quality child care and preschool programs, especially for low-income families. About three-fourths of states have established quality rating and improvement systems to raise the quality of early care and education, and support child development in center- and home-based care. There is also greater awareness among parents and caregivers about the important role they play in helping to foster early learning and development for their child during the first years of life.

This past December, the White House Council of Economic Advisors released a report on The Economics of Early Childhood Investments. The report concluded that “expanding early learning initiatives would provide benefits to society of roughly $8.60 for every $1 spent.”  And about half of that benefit comes from increased earnings for children when they grow up.  The report also cites estimates by researchers Greg Duncan and Katherine Magnuson that high-quality early education for everyone could help narrow by almost half the achievement gap between black and white children at kindergarten entry.

There are a growing number of programs and interventions to help low-income parents build early literacy skills among their young children and narrow the word gap.  Reach Out and Read, which works with pediatric practices to promote early literacy among low-income families, has 15 peer-reviewed studies attesting to its effectiveness in this effort. Raising A Reader, another widely implemented early literacy and family engagement program, also has an emerging evidence base of more than 20 independentstudies. The Nurse-Family Partnership has three random-assignment evaluations demonstrating its effectiveness, and continues to study the long-term impacts of the program on mothers and children to this day.

Head Start and Early Head Start serve more than one million young children. These federally-funded programs are continuing to be improved and evaluated for quality. When it comes to early childhood programs, I am excited about the results of Educare, which goes well beyond preschool to provide comprehensive services to poor children starting in infancy. Educare, which operates now in 14 states and the District of Columbia, is compiling promising findings with regard to several child outcomes.

A number of public high-quality pre-K programs have evidence that they are improving school performance at least through third grade. These programs are the New Jersey Abbott Pre-K program; Boston Pre-K; Maryland’s Extended Elementary Education Program; and North Carolina Pre-Kinderdergarten Program.

Today, we know more than ever about our youngest children. We have knowledge from neuroscience, educators, and programs serving these children and their families. We have a growing body of evidence-based programs.  We don’t know everything — but we know enough to act. Helping more young children break the cycle of poverty will require policies and programs to better support both them and their parents. It is the biggest challenge and opportunity of our time.