Childhood poverty and the ‘word gap’

AntiPovertySoldierSoon after President Lyndon Johnson declared America’s unconditional “War on Poverty” in January 1964, a new wave of poverty-related literature emerged. Scholars, policymakers, journalists and activists offered competing ideas about the root causes of poverty and appropriate strategies to eliminate it from both urban and rural America.

One of the first such studies has come to be known as “The Moynihan Report,” published in 1965. Written by then-Assistant Secretary of Labor Daniel Patrick Moynihan, this report, which attempted to examine poverty in Black America by referencing what he termed the Black community’s “tangle of pathology,” proved extremely controversial.

Almost instantaneously, “The Moynihan Report” was labeled as short-sighted, condescending, ill-informed and racist, particularly by African American leaders and others on the left. Yet Moynihan, a lifelong Democrat and future four-term senator from New York, was then and is often today praised by conservatives for his conclusions.

Additional scholarship focused on what has been dubbed the “cycle of poverty,” sometimes referred to as “generational” poverty, further advancing the debate regarding structural versus behavioral causes for poverty in America. Much of this research has focused directly on children who are most vulnerable to this enduring cycle of despair.

In their 1994 study “Patterns of Childhood Poverty,” Karl Ashworth, Martha Hill and Robert Walker note that children who grow up poor are repeatedly isolated from those who are not poor, whether at school, on the playground, or throughout their neighborhoods and the larger society. This statement is particularly informative when considering another study from around that same time.

In 1995, University of Kansas researchers Betty Hart and Todd Risley published their landmark study titled “The Early Catastrophe.” For nearly two-and-a-half years, Hart and Risley closely observed over 40 families with small children and recorded sound from each home. These children were followed from shortly after six months of age to the age of three and represented families that were wealthy, middle class or impoverished.

The results of their research concluded that by time they reach age three, children living in poverty have heard approximately 30 million fewer words than children who are not poor. Hart and Risely conclude that even if their estimate of 30 million words is imprecise, the clear and overwhelming disparity that exists in language development between poor and non-poor children is a long-standing calamity that helps perpetuate the cycle of poverty and which must be reversed. This disparity is today known as the “word gap.”

Further research supports the notion that the “word gap” is a substantial obstacle to poor children and their opportunities for success in school, work and life. In 2012, a team of three psychologists from Stanford University published findings similar to the University of Kansas study that began 20 years before.

In the Stanford study, Anne Fernald, Virginia Marchman and Adriana Weisleder reveal that “significant disparities in vocabulary and language processing efficiency were already evident at 18 months between infants from higher- and lower-SES families, and by 24 months there was a six-month gap between SES groups in processing skills critical to language development.” Their research further demonstrates that by the time some poor children reach the age of five, they are two or more years behind their peers in language development.

The increasing discussion around the “word gap” has resulted in the demand to provide pre-school access to all children. As the leader of an agency that provides comprehensive Head Start services to more than 1,500 children each year, I recognize the immense value in early childhood education.

Nonetheless, the “word gap” suggests that pre-school alone is not sufficient and that we must begin the process of language development during the earliest stages of infancy. We must talk to our children, we must nurture their minds, and we must begin to stimulate their intellect from birth.

Clearly, reducing and ultimately eliminating the “word gap” isn’t likely to change the socioeconomic status of children or their families overnight, or even for some time to come. However, in spite of the prevalence of the “word gap,” the studies cited illustrate that those poor children that do develop early language skills and are engaged intellectually from a very young age are better equipped to do well in school.

So while there are a myriad of factors that have to be addressed in the fight against poverty, providing poor children the educational foundation they need before starting school can serve as a vital instrument in eliminating both the “word gap” and the more frequently cited achievement gap.

As parents and as a community, we must do everything within our power to afford our children the tools they need to succeed academically on their way to pursuing post-secondary education. A college degree or a career in the skilled trades might just be the milestone that helps that child break the cycle of generational poverty.

Clarence Hightower, executive director of Community Action Partnership of Ramsey & Washington Counties, holds a Ph.D. in urban higher education from Jackson State University. He welcomes reader responses to 450 Syndicate Street, St. Paul, MN 55104.