Research indicates that children living in poverty are at risk for a whole host of poor child and adolescent outcomes, especially if that poverty occurs early in childhood. New research also indicates that childhood poverty can have a significant impact on adult outcome measures. Possible reasons for the increased impact of early childhood poverty are also beginning to emerge. Two articles in the Winter 2011 issue of Pathways investigate these concepts and how policymakers can use this research to inform better anti-poverty policies.
The first “The Long Reach of Early Childhood Poverty” by Greg J Duncan and Katherine Magnuson outlines recent research on how poverty during early childhood (0-5 years of age) seems to have more impact than poverty at other times during childhood and adolescence. Specifically, they cite research using data from the Panel Study of Income Dynamics. The study is based on children born between 1968 and 1975. Income measures were available every year during the child’s life from 0 to 15. Adult outcome information was collected between the ages of 30 and 37. The study found that poor children completed two years less schooling, earned less than half as much money, worked 451 fewer hours per year, received $826 per year more in food stamps, and are nearly 3 times more likely to report poor overall health. Males were more than twice as likely to be arrested; females were 5 times more likely to have had a child out-of-wedlock before turning 21. This same research found that for families with incomes less than $25,000 and children under 5, a $3,000 boost in annual income resulted in a 17%increase in adult earnings and increased hours of work per year after age 25. In other words, it changed the economic future of the young children in that family.
The second article “Building a Foundation for Prosperity on the Science of Early Childhood Development” by Jack P. Shonkoff, M.D. discusses how we can use our increased understanding of the complexities of early childhood development to improve our interventions. Scientists have discovered that our the environment in which children live from conception to early childhood can actually affect a childs biology by creating what he calls biological memories. Specifically he states that early experiences with threat, uncertainty, neglect, or abuse trigger the body’s stress management systems, which can become over-activated if these conditions occur frequently. An over-active stress management system can cause disruptions in the development of brain circuitry. In other words, it can alter they way the brain processes information. Other biological responses to frequent stress in early childhood include increased risk of a compromised immune system, hypertension, heart disease, obesity, substance abuse, and mental illness. Based on this research, Shonkoff suggests targeting three areas during early childhood.
- Healthy, stable relationships: This includes both family and non-family relationships and includes a continuum of interventions from providing more nurturing, responsive care giving to protecting kids from abusive relationships
- Physical environments: Includes protection from chemicals like lead, mercury, and pesticides; safety from injury such as using car seats properly and safe play areas and; safe neighborhoods
- Appropriate nutrition: Includes the availability and affordability of nutritious food; parent’s ability to plan age-appropriate meals; controlling the problem of excess caloric intake and childhood obesity.
Shonkoff also looks at some of the challenges policymakers and service providers face in trying to address the needs of young children. He argues that we need to focus both of innovation and improving the quality of existing programs. He lays out 4 major challenges to these approaches.
- Thinking across silos: There is a need for coordinated, integrated, science-based interventions that are applied across agencies and sectors
- Understanding the cultural context: A broad range of child-rearing beliefs and practices must be considered before implementing interventions at scale
- Innovating as well as improving: the author wonders if our definition of evidence is too narrow.
- Formulating and testing new theories of change: Policies and practices will evolve best in an open, diverse environment that values and promotes intellectual flexibility, creativity, risk-taking, and learning from failure.
To read more from Pathways, click here.