Our opinion: We pay the price, sooner or later


It's an undisputed fact that growing up in poverty can have negative effects on childhood development.

From not getting enough food or clothing, not having a consistent roof over their heads, exposure to toxins, living in a permanent state of stress and not getting an adequate education, many people who grew up poor struggle all of their lives to make better lives for themselves and their own children. Unfortunately, many of them fail. Those who are able to get ahead in life often had parents or organizations that supported their development by mitigating their situation with affection, attention and consideration.

But a recent study points to some disturbing results of growing up poor without the proper support systems. Researchers with Teachers College at Columbia University and Children's Hospital Los Angeles in California conducted brain imaging scans of children and adults between the ages of 3 and 20. For three years they worked with neuroscientists, analyzing the magnetic resonance imaging scans. What they found was that the brains of children who lived in families making less than $25,000 a year were smaller than the brains of those raised in families earning $150,000 or more. According to the study, the poor kids also scored lower on cognitive tests.

"Correlation is not causation," warned Kimberly Noble, one of the authors of the study. "We can talk about links between parent education and family income and children's brain structure but we can't say for sure these differences are causing differences in brain structure."

"The researchers have two theories about why poor children have smaller brains," noted Lyndsey Layton for the Washington Post. "One is that poor families lack access to material goods that help healthy development, like good nutrition and higher quality health care. The other theory is that poor families tend to live more chaotic lives, and that stress could be inhibiting brain development in children."

That children growing up in disadvantage families lead troubled lives as adults is nothing new, and it's not just related to poverty. Children who grow up in well-off families that lack compassion, affection and value-grounded guidance also often become troubled.

It's not new news that the first years of childhood are crucial to healthy development.

"The first five years of a child's life are fundamentally important," notes Facts for Life. "They are the foundation that shapes children's future health, happiness, growth, development and learning achievement at school, in the family and community, and in life in general. Recent research confirms that the first five years are particularly important for the development of the child's brain, and the first three years are the most critical in shaping the child's brain architecture. Early experiences provide the base for the brain's organizational development and functioning throughout life. They have a direct impact on how children develop learning skills as well as social and emotional abilities."

While those who have the financial and social resources to insure their children receive a stable upbringing need to look inward if they fail in raising healthy offspring, Noble that a small stipend could help a low-income mother raise a son or daughter. In the next phase

Robert Putnam, a professor at Harvard who lives in Jaffrey, N.H., recently published "Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community," in which he noted that children from families with more resources have an undisputed advantage over children from disadvantaged families.

"It's not just the money," wrote the Keene Sentinel's Steve Gilbert, "but the components associated with that stature: strong family structures, quality schools and teachers and social interactions."

Putnam's most salient, and disturbing, conclusion is what he calls "moon time."

Gilbert noted that children from middle- and high-income families receive 45 minutes more attention a day from parents and caregivers than those from low-income families.

Putnam contends that poorer children are suffering the most from cuts to school budgets and social services and are being isolated from their more well-off peers because of the lack of money to engage in extracurricular activities. And parents that must work two or three jobs to make ends meet and pay the bills don't always have the time necessary to spend 45 extra minutes a day to spend with their children.

Noble's next study is to recruit 1,000 low-income mothers from around the country, half of whom would receive $333 a month, while the other half receive $20 a month for three years.

Just as with the "Housing First" solution of providing homes for the homeless, Noble's proposal costs us all money from our own hard-earned paychecks. But in the end, we all pay for the homeless and the disadvantaged in our communities somewhere down the line and it's usually local governments who bear the brunt of kicking the can farther down the road until something has to be done. With federal legislators who are more concerned with cutting social services and rewarding the oligarchs who finance their campaigns, towns, cities and states are left to pick up the pieces and deal with the consequences.

We can debate all we want about whether it's the responsibility of parents, the government or charities to care for the disadvantaged in our communities, but the hot air of bloviation serves no one except those who profit from the outrage machine. We need to care for all members of our community, regardless of their circumstances. Otherwise the villages we prize become divided by social standing and all of us pay the price.


If you'd like to leave a comment (or a tip or a question) about this story with the editors, please email us. We also welcome letters to the editor for publication; you can do that by filling out our letters form and submitting it to the newsroom.

Powered by Creative Circle Media Solutions