Good news for babies and toddlers on the economic front today: many fewer are living below the poverty line. But what today’s Census Bureau report is really telling us is that a good portion of our future workforce is starting life with some level of risk that they will not reach their potential.
Good news for babies and toddlers on the economic front today: many fewer are living below the poverty line. The youngest children had a big drop in their poverty rate from 2014 to 2015. The latest Census Bureau data shows that 21.2 percent of babies and toddlers lived in families at or below the federal poverty line, a 2.5 percentage point drop in just one year. That is unquestionably good news. Coupled with a record rise in household income, it suggests the recovery from the Great Recession is finally making its way to families with young children. But even with a heartening move in the right direction, a stark reality remains. Young children are the age group most likely to live in poverty. They do so when their development is progressing at its most rapid and most vulnerable rate. By any measure, the proportion of children starting out life already at risk for falling behind remains staggering and unacceptable.
What does it mean that more than one in five babies and toddlers in America live below the federal poverty line? In dollar terms, that means a family of four is living on $24,250 or less a year. As their neural connections are forming at a rate of one million or more per second, babies in these families often live in circumstances rife with situations that place them at risk. They may lack access to adequate nutrition, move frequently or live in crowded quarters, divert critical body energy shivering in winter because there isn’t enough money to pay the heating bill. They are less likely to have access to enriching early learning experiences. Their parents may be stressed to the limit with the challenges of looking for or holding a job, finding and affording child care, and organizing their lives’ complicated logistics.
Young children are the age group most likely to live in poverty.
The thread of stress woven throughout their lives is important, because chronic, unrelenting stress is a prime mechanism through which early experiences can undermine brain development. It is often called “toxic stress,” because it unleashes hormones that constantly bathe the brain, weakening its architecture. Early chronic stress has biological effects as it becomes embedded, not just in neurological development, but in the physical systems also developing rapidly in the early years, affecting immune systems. In this way, poverty literally gets under the skin. Recent advances in brain imaging show that poverty and income is associated with smaller brain growth in key areas associated with self-regulation, learning, memory, language, and emotional control. All are important for success in school and in life.
Children who start out in poverty are more likely to fall behind in their language development, lag behind in later reading proficiency, and experience learning disabilities and developmental delays. The effects of poverty and related adverse experiences can follow children into adulthood. Timing matters. Poverty early in life can have a particularly pernicious effect, reducing earnings capacity and hours worked and increasing the likelihood of obesity and other poor health outcomes. Politicians often say that children are so important because they represent our future. Yet, too often our political discourse brings children into the mix only in talking about the kind of world they will inherit, as if how we prepare them for that world is irrelevant to its ultimate shape. Today’s infants and toddlers will be part of the core workforce at mid-century. And Hispanics—where 31 percent were born into poverty in 2015—are projected to account for 80% of the growth in the workforce by that time, doubling their share of the total workforce. That workforce will need to be highly skilled to enable us to compete in the global economy. Children need to get a strong foundation now to make a full contribution later, when it is most needed. What today’s Census Bureau report is really telling us is that a good portion of this workforce still is starting life with some level of risk that they will not reach their potential.
The energy generated by a recovery taking hold coupled with the science of what we know supports positive development can help us address the implications of poverty for our babies and toddlers. Income level is not destiny. Not all children in poverty will fall behind. The same research that looks at critical brain growth also finds a key protective ingredient: the maternal-child relationship, which can buffer young children from the consequences of adverse experiences. In addition, many programs help address the needs of low-income families in ways that positively affect children. Here are three places to focus our attention.
Continue support for existing federal programs that, contrary to what some would have us believe, do help ameliorate the impacts of poverty. Oft-maligned programs such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), housing and energy support, and of course, health care through Medicaid, all supply essential ingredients for early childhood development. In sufficient amounts, SNAP gives young children in low-income families a nutritional boost that turns into healthier physical, cognitive, and emotional development such that Children’s HealthWatch has dubbed it the “SNAP vaccine.” Housing supports create stability vital to positive development in young children; coupled with food assistance such as SNAP or supplements for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC), housing security for families with young children is dramatically increased. And Low-Income Home Energy Assistance helps reduce housing instability and food insecurity.
Improve parents’ earning power. While ZERO TO THREE is populated with early childhood specialists, not economists, we know that improving parents income is key to lifting babies out of poverty. Policies such as increasing the minimum wage, creating higher quality jobs and training adults to attain them, and tax policies such as the refundable Earned Income Tax Credit help put more dollars into family pocketbooks. Reducing both stress and the possibility that setbacks as small as running out of money for gas to get to a job don’t send the family into a downward spiral. Research suggests that increases in income can help improve child and adult outcomes if timed early in life.
Finally, boost strategies to support the strong, nurturing relationship and positive early learning experiences young children need to start life on a path to reach their potential. Proven approaches—some beginning during the important prenatal period—can help diminish gaps and promote stronger social-emotional foundations. Economists estimate that investing in high quality early childhood programs for disadvantaged children can yield a return of 7 to 10 percent per year. Essential elements of a comprehensive policy for infants, toddlers, young children, and their families include:
- Paid Family Leave—By giving parents and newborn or newly adopted babies the gift of time together, we promote the most essential ingredient to success later in life, a secure, nurturing relationship with the adults in a baby’s life who care most about her.
- Early Head Start—Families at risk, from all racial and ethnic backgrounds, benefit from this comprehensive platform for reaching infants, toddlers, and parents together, through multiple settings. A rigorous evaluation found positive impacts on children’s cognitive and language development, more positive approaches to learning, and fewer behavior problems. Parents were more involved, provided more support for learning, and had reduced risk for depression. Because of funding constraints, the program serves fewer than 5% of eligible children.
- High-Quality Child Care—Positive effects from high-quality care extend to areas of early learning, cognitive and language development, and school achievement, and can endure into the adult years. This level of quality is out of reach for the families whose children could benefit most. A major infusion of resources is needed to approach the quality children require and ensure working parents access to services. By not investing in quality care, we lose a prime opportunity to boost the development of at-risk children who spend many hours in care while their parents work.
- Evidence-Based Home Visiting—Home visitors reach children and families in familiar surroundings and helps parents build nurturing relationships with their babies. Impacts have been found in child health, development and school readiness, as well as maternal health, positive parenting practices, and linkages and referrals. The Maternal, Infant, and Early Childhood Home Visiting (MIECHV) program, which has enabled states to embed this approach within early childhood systems, is due to expire next year.
When we wrote about high poverty levels two years ago, we were in the midst of an election where the conversation was about war, sequestration, and belt tightening, not about what children and families need. This year is different. While the conversation on the campaign trail still doesn’t focus much on young children in poverty, we are hearing much more about the needs of families raising children and even mentions of the programs outlined above. Both candidates have or will put forth plans on paid family leave and child care. While these proposals span a wide distance, the first step in getting something done in Washington is to have your issue raised on a big stage. The second is to have it raised on both sides of the aisle.
Are these conversations a sign that, as we wrote in that earlier blog, more people are connecting the early development dots? These points tell us that the prenatal period and experiences in the early years matter for a lifetime; that we need to look beyond simple one-shot panaceas to comprehensive strategies that value families and support the vital role parents play in nurturing children; that we cannot let up on quality from before a child is born until he or she heads off into the workforce; and that we actually know how to do these things if we can find the will to make the investment. Only time will tell. Meanwhile, we need to Rally for Babies and tell the candidates that babies matter.