Recently I came across a couple of stories that addressed the misconceptions many of us have regarding the subject of poverty in America. Such misconceptions include the belief that the poor should be blamed for their own plight, the idea that Americans living in poverty don’t really have it so bad, and the assertion that anti-poverty programs are ineffective.
In tandem with these particular thoughts, I believe, is another common misunderstanding that fails to recognize the long-term effects that poverty has on children, families, and the larger community. For the purposes of this column, I would like to focus on the lasting effect poverty has on our children.
One might readily assume that a child who grows up living in poverty, particularly generational poverty, will likely lack access to quality education, proper nutrition and health care, living-wage employment, and other basic needs. They also might disproportionately experience a multitude of social ills such as violence, contact with the criminal justice system, substance abuse, and homelessness among other problems.
While all of this may seem obvious, some more recent studies suggest that the impact of child poverty is even more ominous. In considering some of the latest research, the Chicago Policy Review writes, “Many of the costs of poverty are self-evident. Lack of reliable access to basic needs such as food, housing, and medicine can be profoundly disruptive in the near term. New research, however, indicates that poverty’s most damaging behavioral effects on young children manifest over time.
One of these studies was published by Gary Evans and Rochelle Cassells of Cornell University in the October 2013 issue of Clinical Psychological Science. In their report, “Childhood Poverty, Cumulative Risk Exposure, and Mental Health in Emerging Adults,” Evans and Cassells reveal that children exposed to poverty are significantly more likely to suffer not only from physical health problems, but from severe mental and behavioral disorders as well. The authors also note that these risk factors remain present regardless of whether or not the individual’s economic circumstances change as they transition into adulthood.
Another thought-provoking study, published in Science magazine, focuses on how poverty impacts brain function. In the report titled “Poverty Impedes Cognitive Function,” a group of scientists from the U.S., U.K. and Canada representing the fields of psychology, behavioral science, economics, and public policy argue that poverty essentially exacts a “tax on the brain.”
This “brain tax” has the power to compromise one’s acuity in the performance of simple everyday activities and responsibilities such as parenting, working, and managing a household. The Atlantic adds that “experiencing poverty is like knocking 13 points off your IQ as you try to navigate everything else.”
There are several additional studies that explore how detrimental poverty is to the health and wellbeing of poor children throughout their life, whether they escape the clutches of poverty or not. This includes comprehensive research published by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, The Borgen Project, and the Pulsus Journal of Pediatrics and Child Health.
When trying to make sense of all this and understand why the stakes are so high, two of the authors contributing to the Science magazine study perhaps sum it up best with the title of their new book. Sendhil Mullainathan, professor of economics at Harvard, and Eldar Shafir, professor of behavioral sciences at Princeton, recently co-authored Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much.
That pretty much says it all, I think. As the research clearly demonstrates, poverty can and does impact children in a myriad of negative ways throughout their entire lives. What is particularly troubling is the fact that even children who rise above poverty as adults might still be severely affected physically, behaviorally, emotionally, and in other ways for the rest of their lives.
So we have yet another way to look at poverty and its wickedness. It provides yet another reason why we must continue to marshal all available social, economic, cultural and human resources in our efforts to conquer poverty.
Our children deserve better. We must do better for them.
Clarence Hightower is the executive director of Community Action Partnership of Ramsey & Washington Counties. Dr. Hightower holds a Ph.D. in urban higher education from Jackson State University. He welcomes reader responses to 450 Syndicate Street North, St. Paul, MN 55104.