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A Difficult Childhood: Effects of Poverty on Child Development

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Poverty has been shown to have detrimental effects on overall child health & development across a wide spectrum and along various dimensions. Poverty has been often associated to negatively influence some of the early steps in the development of the brain in children, children’s social and emotional development. It is often attributed for deprivation in children, like the risk for health issues (obesity, Asthma, etc), low developmental scores, an increase in mortality rate, higher risk of injuries and abuse. It creates stress on families and eventually on children interfering on their success.

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What is Poverty? Poverty has various definitions. It is not just lack of money and materialistic things. Even lack of respect, education, identity, dignity, social belonging (family, affection, relationship) can be treated as poverty.

In American society, the Federal Poverty line is first established in the year 1960 and the official Federal poverty threshold was formed in the year 1995, like the following: for a family of 3 people with one child the income limit is $12,158 and for a family of 4 with two children it is $15,569. But according to most recent stats as of 2016: a family of 3 people with one child, this is $19,055 and for a family of 4 with two children, the limit is $24,008. In all industrialized nations, the US has the highest percentage of young children in poverty. i. e. the US has 21% of its children below age 18 in poverty and 24% of its children under age 6, in poverty. As per the 1995 US Census, there are approximately 36. 4 million poor people and among that 14. 7 million are children under the age of 18 and 5. 8 million are children under the age 6. More recent statistics are showing that this number has increased to 16 million children (under the age 18) living below the poverty line in the US, out of these 5. 5 million are infants and toddlers (under the age 3).

Definition of Child Development

Child development refers to the development of motor skills, better Cognitive performance and good language skills, and the development of social & emotional functionings. Child development means, having at least average IQ, being able to compete with their peers, having proper sleep and growing in a stress-free and stimulating environment. All these depend on Children’s well-being, family background, social network. Child (& their Brain) development and Impact of Poverty on it. Children from low-income families are at risk for many problems like academics, social problems, improper health and well-being, which can, in turn, undermine the achievement of education. Poverty has always saddled these children and consecutively they have shown slower rates of growth in a few main brain structures (frontal, temporal, and parietal lobes).

Also, the gray matter volumes in various regions in the brain of these children in poverty are 3% to 4% points below the standard norm. The Parietal lobe acts as a network hub connecting various parts to use the stored information and any incoming information. The Frontal lobe is the executive, which controls our attention and regulate our behavior. It is one of the last parts to develop, in the brain. The Temporal lobe processes sensory input and helps retain visual memory, comprehension of language and association of emotion. The longer children live in poverty, the deficits will be greater in their academics. These patterns continue to adulthood, affecting lifetime-reduced occupational attainment.

The brain structure of children from disparate economic conditions are the same at birth. But they start to separate in brain growth as these children grow, which implicates the environment that these kids face during postnatal. Various studies have been conducted assessing children’s cognitive performance and IQ, correlating their family financial status. Duyme et al is one such study, found a 13-point difference in IQs of these children, comparing lower-income family children and higher-income family children. Studies done on non-human animals show that those left without toys and exercises in cages, and without opportunities to explore, have shown low neuron generation and synapses in the brain. Other studies have observed various health issues prevalent among children in low-income families. Obesity is observed in 40% more children and Asthma has observed 30% more children in low-income families when compared to others. School dropout rate is almost twice in these children and they are likely to face nearly 9 times more of food security issues and 7% more of them could become a teenage mother. Assessing the current measure of Poverty Scholars suggest that an ideal measure of poverty should meet two basic criteria: acceptability by public and defensibility by statistics. Often child poverty measures are not perfect and blunt. They alone cannot sufficiently measure deprivation in children.

Children in low-income families tend to have poor nutritional food, will lack proper books, end up with no educational toys, lack proper sleep, grow in an unsafe environment like parental stress and not enough enrichment conversation. Empowerment of families The United States now has a majority of their public schools filled mostly with low-income students.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics in 2013, 51% of students in US public schools were from low-income families. Children from these low-income families have recorded poor grades in schools and low educational attainment. These patterns persist to adulthood and contributing to low wages and income. Thus far, we have discussed how Human brain growth and development is delayed by lack of enrichment. But wait there is still good news. Less gray matter in the brain at the age of 4, is not necessarily an ever-lasting/un-changeable problem. These people are not necessarily doomed, and can fully recoup if they are provided with an enriched, stimulating and safe environment. But as mentioned in the earlier part of this paper, there are about 16 million children in the US and within that 5. 5 million are infants and toddlers, and their percentage is only increasing with time, (Infants and Toddlers percentage, living in low-income families has raised from 44% in 2008 to 47% in 2014).

Hence making the task of intervention a daunting one. Even providing simple things like “talking to and comforting these children”, “providing time to play”, and “distressing them with plays at parks”, will enrich them. Communities are developing programs targeting babies with high risk by understanding parents, toddlers, and infant’s needs. But the cost of these programs is challenging. Other studies have observed that Federal government’s intervention into these low-income families through Federal Income Tax credits and Regional government’s sharing of local Casino profits (from a newly opened casino in the region) have seen crime reduction, education improvement, fewer problems in childhood and adolescence like psychiatric and psychopathologies.

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Poverty has impacted the well-being of children at various levels and ages. We have seen other worsening factors like community context, duration of low-income, etc. If proper intervention is taken care then we saw improvement in all the affected segments. There are still more research and studies need to be conducted, as there is potentially much more to be learned.

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