Policy Resource

What the Poverty Numbers Say About Our Future

Sep 18, 2014

Again we find ourselves asking the perennial question: What does it mean that almost one in four babies and toddlers in America live below the federal poverty line?

Today’s Census Bureau report on poverty levels in 2013 brought some good news about the state of young children in our country: fewer of them are living in poverty. Economic recovery is finally reaching more families. But the 2 percentage point drop should not obscure a fact that is often overlooked. Young children are the age group most likely to be poor. And as welcome as the decline is, the proportion of children starting out life already at risk for falling behind remains staggering and unacceptable.

Politicians often say that children are so important because they represent our future. Well, the Census Bureau report shows that a significant portion of that future is at risk because close to half of all young children (45%) live in families with income insufficient to make ends meet, that is, below 200% of poverty. (The poverty threshold for a family of four with two children is $23,834 per year, or $5,958 per family member.)

More than a fifth of that future—almost 23% of infants and toddlers—is spending its early years in outright poverty. Not only do we worry about the economic consequences of this number. But when we look behind it to see the much higher rates for very young children from racial and ethnic minorities, it offends our sense of justice as well. 44% of black babies and toddlers and 34% of Hispanic babies and toddlers live in poverty. Clearly, many young children in America do not start out with an equal opportunity to reach their potential.

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. So we find ourselves asking the perennial question: What does it mean that almost one in four babies and toddlers in America live below the federal poverty line? And that almost another quarter live between that line of demarcation and 200% of poverty—the point below which economists find that families’ income can’t cover the necessities of life?

These young children are spending the most vulnerable years developmentally in circumstances rife with situations that place them at risk. They may lack access to adequate nutrition, live in unstable housing, 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. This stress can affect the parent-child relationship that can buffer young children from the consequences of adverse experiences.

The thread of stress woven throughout their lives is important, because chronic stress is a prime mechanism through which early experiences can undermine brain development. It is often described as “toxic stress.” In chronically stressed children, the hormones stress unleashes 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. Poverty literally gets under the skin.

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.

Back to that future we’re trying to save for our children. Today’s infants and toddlers will be part of the core workforce at mid-century. And Hispanics—a third of whom are now being born into poverty—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 almost half of this workforce is starting life with at least some level of risk that they will not reach their potential.

Creating a Baby Blanket of Care: The really good news is we know how to help improve the odds for the children behind today’s income and poverty statistics. Just as we know from the science about the importance of development in the earliest years, so we know from program evaluation research about effective strategies to improve the lives of at-risk children and their families. Strong, nurturing relationships can help buffer children from the chronic stress. Proven approaches—some beginning during the important prenatal period—can help diminish the gaps and promote stronger social-emotional foundations. Economists estimate that for every dollar invested in early childhood programs, savings of $3.78 to $17.07 can be expected in future public expenditures.

The key to changing the odds is creating a “baby blanket” of care, building systems that reach all vulnerable infants and toddlers where they are: at home with parents or relatives, in formal and informal child care settings, or in comprehensive settings such as Early Head Start. Central to success is supporting parents in understanding the amazing power they have to profoundly shape their children’s development and the people they will become.

Here are some essential elements of a comprehensive policy for infants, toddlers, young children, and their families. Throughout, we need to ensure approaches are culturally and linguistically attuned and that infant-toddler professionals reflect the diversity of the young children for whom they care. (Read more in our federal policy agenda and the (Early Experiences Matter Policy Guide.)[http://www.zerotothree.org/public-policy/policy-toolkit/?referrer=http://t.umblr.com/])

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. Thanks to the Early Head Start-Child Care Partnerships, this approach will reach more young children, but still less than 5% of eligible children will be served.

Evidence-Based Home Visiting— Home visitors reach children and families in familiar surroundings where they are most comfortable and at a time when parents also offer a window of opportunity for learning about supporting their children’s development. Proven impacts have been found in child health, child development and school readiness, maternal health, reductions in child maltreatment, family economic self-sufficiency, positive parenting practices, and linkages and referrals. The Maternal, Infant, and Early Childhood Home Visiting (MIECHV) program, which has enabled states to expand and embed this approach within “baby blanket” systems of care, is due to expire next March.

High-Quality Child Care— By not investing in quality care, we are losing a prime opportunity to boost the development of at-risk children who spend many hours in care while their parents work. 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. The reauthorization of the Child Care and Development Block Grant now moving through Congress will help improve health and safety as well as quality. But with the value of child care dollars eroding over the past decade, this sector of the early learning system needs a major infusion of resources to approach the quality children need.

Our national debate during and after this fall’s election doubtless will continue to be about war, reigning in federal spending even further, sequestration, and taxes—not children growing up in poverty. Federal funding for children is shrinking, a trend expected to continue for the next decade. Not every young children living in an economically disadvantaged family will fall behind. But we cannot afford to have so many children at risk if we want to ensure the vision of a strong national future comes true. When we fail to make sure one half of our future has the best possible start, the other half may find achieving a strong, competitive nation to be an elusive goal.

So will anything change? It is easy to become weary, because in truth, the proportion of infants and toddlers in poverty is similar to what we noted over 20 years ago. The understanding from the research about the importance of early development was summarized in the year 2000 in the seminal work, From Neurons to Neighborhoods, and has only deepened with advances since that time. And the policy prescriptions are similar as well, although we have made some heartening progress, including Early Head Start, the Children’s Health Insurance Program, and MIECHV.

What feels different is that more people seem to be connecting the dots, as Nicholas Kristof did in his column last Sunday: 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.

So, is this the time? Is this the time when we finally translate and scale-up what we know from the science into what we do through parenting, practice, and policy for young children and their families? Will we all come together and Rally for Babies?

  • Author

    Patricia A. Cole

    Senior Director of Federal Policy


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