40 Miles Between Baltimore and the Budget
For very young children, living in poverty can undermine their emotional, cognitive, and physical development. Today, 48% of all infants and toddlers live in families who are poor or near poor. Here's how we can support them.
Like the rest of the nation last week, the tragic events in Baltimore surrounding the death of Freddie Gray while in police custody riveted many here in Washington. Only 40 miles separate the two cities, and it’s easy to overlook the areas of the city beset with decay and deep poverty, glimpsed from the highway flyovers leading to the Inner Harbor. The recent tragedy brought these areas into focus, striking many chords in the process—police practices, racial bias, neighborhoods where lack of equity of opportunity is writ large.
Trust, understanding, and comfort in the face of trauma
As we observe Children’s Mental Health Awareness Day this year, the spotlight on children living in a constantly stressful and sometimes violent environment is particularly striking. Our colleagues at the Maryland Family Network (MFN) underscored the impact of the situation in Baltimore on the youngest. At the most intense point in the protests, children and staff took shelter at the Little Flowers Early Childhood and Development Center until the danger had passed. Crystal Flowers, the director and founder, emphasized that following these events the staff had to make children feel safe and give them a sense of normalcy. “They have to go outside and play, and skip, and run,” Ms. Flowers says. “It’s ok. It’s safe. We’re here with you.”
What Ms. Flowers knows is that even the youngest children, far from being unaware of traumatic events, can be affected by what they see and sense from the adults around them. Babies and toddlers may not understand what they are experiencing, but they remember what they have been through. Since young children mostly are not able to talk about their feelings, they act them out through behaviors like whining, trouble sleeping, or more kicking or biting. Because their trusted adults are their security, young children are very sensitive to their caregiving environments. How their parents and caregivers are in the midst of such events will affect how they are. That is why Ms. Flowers and her staff presented a calm front and watched for the subtle cues, particularly from the youngest children, that signal the need for help. They are ready with comfort, patience, and understanding.
Poverty and young children
The bigger picture is that the young children in this area of Baltimore, and many others around the nation, are not strangers to stress and even violence in their neighborhoods. Residents have talked to the news media about the lack of jobs and basic services such as grocery stores. Underlying all is poverty. In Maryland as a whole, one in seven young children lives in poverty. In Baltimore City one in five lives—not just in poverty—but in deep poverty. For a family of three, that means $10,045 a year or $9 a day for each family member. For very young children, living in an environment of such economic distress can undermine their emotional, cognitive, and physical development. The chronic, unrelenting stress they experience can release hormones toxic to the developing brain and affect immune and other physiological systems.
Just 6 months of revenue from the estate tax would more than double federal spending on early care and learning for infants and toddlers who live in families that are poor or near poor—that’s 48 percent of all babies in America. With that type of investment, we could let a thousand flowers bloom.
These young children need strong relationships with trusted adults—both parents and other caregivers—to buffer the effects of their stressful environments. As Crystal Flowers reported, “If they don’t have that outlet [of being able to talk with adults about their feelings and confusion], I think what we saw on Monday are the long-term effects. If we don’t do something when they’re two, three, four, and five, then they’re not going to know how to vent that anger later,” Crystal says. “They have to learn to live in their community and know that when justice is not served, that there are constructive ways to handle it. We can teach them that now.” Unquestionably, the issues facing Baltimore and other communities across the country are complex and do not lend themselves to easy solutions. Job creation and economic investment must be tackled. Healing relationships between police and community is critical, as is the need to confront racial biases that sometimes underlie—not just police actions toward young black men—but the greater likelihood that young black children, and particularly boys, will be expelled from preschool.
Ensuring babies are part of the solution
Any comprehensive strategy must include as a central element supporting early development, starting even before birth, to give the youngest children the opportunity to reach their potential. Approaches such as home visiting, Early Head Start, and high-quality comprehensive child care reach both parents and children with support that can be critical to overcoming environments that can jeopardize family well-being. And an understanding of social-emotional development and addressing mental health needs must permeate all of these approaches.
As it happens, while the media focus on Baltimore was exposing the intense problems its residents are experiencing, 40 miles down I-95, Congress was cobbling together a far-reaching document that potentially could start a conversation on these fundamental problems as well as lay out actions on a grand scale. Yet, the budget plan adopted by both House and Senate (no Presidential signature is required), far from taking note of these problems, envisions reducing the deficit over the next 10 years is proportionately by cutting programs for low- and moderate-income individuals and families. If the budget plan is implemented, it could reduce even further spending on programs like Head Start/Early Head Start and child care, already depressed by the on-going sequester that limits discretionary spending. Medicaid and nutrition programs also would be cut under the guise of state flexibility. These programs recognize that families’ access to medical care and food is a matter of basic survival, especially when their income is half or less of the federal poverty line, not an impediment to solving their communities’ overwhelming problems.
What makes a child ready for school? School-readiness is more than just having learned a set of facts and skills. Toddlers and young children require a “secret ingredient”—social-emotional skills.
It is up to advocates to make sure that early childhood policy is informed not just by research, but by demographics and a sense of equity.
We most certainly know what we can and should do for babies—and it’s time to get started.