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Poverty: A childhood disease with lifelong consequences?

Since babies are our future, we better pay a lot more attention to them, two convincing speakers argued Thursday.

Start by looking at Minnesota’s demographics, specifically the rising numbers and growing diversity of its babies, suggested research scientist Richard Chase, co-author of “Babies in Minnesota: The well-being and vulnerabilities of our youngest children,” a recent report issued by Wilder Research.  

Then, study the high poverty levels of many of those babies’ families.

Next, look at the effects of poverty on a baby’s brain development, urged Megan Gunnar, professor of child development at the University of Minnesota. Brain research shows the effects of poverty on young children can cause them to start school unprepared to learn and thus alter the course of their lives.

“The barriers to achievement arrive early,” said Gunnar, stressing the importance of healthy brain development, particularly between birth and 3 years old, leading to a healthy, educated adult. A child born into a very poor family, however, is exposed to life stressors, not the least of which is emotionally strained caregivers failing to provide a supportive and nurturing environment.

Megan Gunnar
Megan Gunnar

“Significant adversity impairs brain development,” she told about 100 attendees at the fouth Annual Nancy Latimer Convening for Children and Youth” at Wilder in St. Paul.

Calling poverty “a childhood disease” with life-long repercussions and costs for both children and society, Chase asked: “How many little brains in Minnesota have already suffered lost opportunities” because of the biological damage resulting from poverty?

Between 2000 and 2007, according to his written report, the birth rate in Minnesota increased 9 percent to about 74,000, explained by a 50 percent increase in births to non-white mothers. (Some of the numbers have been updated to 2008 and are found in this story but not in the report.)

In 2008 in Minnesota, he said, 60 percent of American Indian babies were born into poverty, 42 percent of African American, 33 percent of Hispanic, 10 percent of Asian, and 8 percent of white babies. 

Given that the federal poverty threshold for a family of four in 2009 is $22,000 a year, that means about 39,300 (14 percent) of children birth through age 3 live in poverty, up from 12 percent in 2000, according to Chase’s report.

Add in children to age 4 and raise income level to include up to 185 percent of the poverty threshold, and that’s 30 percent or 82,900 children in poverty.


Increase in number of births by race, 2000-2007

Source: Center for Health Statistics, Minnesota Department of Health

From birth the brain develops on cognitive, emotional and social levels, Gunnar said. In the best of worlds, baby learns skills preparing her or him for reading, writing and language, she said. 

But born into a very poor family, a child as well as the caregiver is impacted by economic stressors. Parents worried about their child’s next meal may not have the energy to encourage a child’s learning and curiosity.

‘Serve and return’
Ever heard of something called “serve and return,” not as it applies to tennis, but rather to very young babies? Both Gunnar and Chase talked about it.

Say baby smiles and gurgles at Mom or Dad, then waits, big eyes staring, for a response, a smile or encouraging word in return.

What if it doesn’t come? After awhile, a baby closes down to trying new things, slowing brain development.

Consequently, children are not being exposed to language-rich, positive environments. “They’re starting off at a huge disadvantage,” Chase said at the conference presented by the Minnesota Early Childhood Funders Network and co-sponsored by the Minnesota Council on Foundations.

Richard Chase
Richard Chase

There’s also “the other hidden issue” among low-income families says Chase: 15 to 20 percent of their caregivers have some sort of depression. “How can that mom develop positive interaction so babies can develop?”

Further, these families most often don’t have access to affordable mental health care, Chase said.

“There’s this unbreakable link between poverty, health and education, ” Chase said. “We have to stop focusing just on little kids. We have to empower families and communities.”

Chase acknowledged successful ongoing and pilot programs focused on the problems, but lamented budgetary cutbacks.

“What we’re lacking is early childhood [programs] being a priority,” Chase said. “We have to stop talking about how to close the achievement gap. We have to think about how to prevent the achievement gap.”

Investing in early childhood programs gives the “biggest bang for the buck,” and they are a better investment than department stores, stadiums or airlines, Chase said.

Related content

The Minnesota Early Childhood Funders Network presented “Nancy” awards, honoring the spirit and legacy of the late Nancy Latimer for her leadership and commitment to children, to:

Jane Kretzmann, senior program officer at the Minnesota Community Foundation for her work promoting the healthy development of young children, including development of the Project for Babies;

Arthur J. Rolnick, economist, senior vice president and director of research at the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis for showing the link between early childhood education and healthy communities and economies.

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Comments (12)

  1. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 06/25/2010 - 10:44 am.

    The authors have confused dysfunctional, ill prepared parenting with poverty.

    We could put these troubled families into comfortable, middle class accommodations, and most would simply experience a higher class dysfunction.

    The only solution to this problem is to encourage people that are wholly unprepared for child rearing, through a variety of means (peer, societal, financial and educational), to avoid procreating at all cost until they are in a mental and financial condition that will give their children the upbringing they deserve.

    I realize this sounds like a simplistic solution to a problem I am confident can be muddled through any number of confusing conditions, but it is clear that today’s guilt free, “I’m OK, You’re OK” society has had a measurably negative effect on people at the lower end of the socio-economic spectrum.

  2. Submitted by Christine Richardson on 06/25/2010 - 11:28 am.

    Mr. Swift,

    I am not an investigator on this study, but I do believe the independent variable (the primary one) is living below poverty level, and not parenting dysfunction, or low intelligence. You are making extremely provocative assumptions here.

    I notice that you are predisposed to commenting on Minnpost articles with great frequency. Given this posting, I would suggest that you not always comment, just because you can.

  3. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 06/25/2010 - 12:25 pm.

    Ms. Richardson, with all due respect, my point is that poverty is the independent variable that the authors have *chosen* to focus on, but their choice of focus does not necessarily allow one to reach a singularly informed conclusion.

    Is living below the poverty level an independent variable, or is it a natural consequence of just the sort of thoughtless, immature behaviors that also make for an ill prepared parent?

    I think so, and I may have an insight you lack.

    My siblings and I were abandoned as very young kids by a father that met all the criteria for bad parent of the year. Our childhood was one of extreme poverty; I can recall my mom returning pop bottles to buy dinner.

    But the mom that scraped every corner to keep us fed and clothed also spend every waking hour teaching us the things we’d need to know to dig our way out of the hole we were born into. In my case, my family and I are reaping the rewards of her selfless dedication. Thank God she was prepared for the effort.

    Given the human catastrophe we are witnessing in many communities, and the escalating cost to our society, perhaps a bit of provocation is in order…by your leave, of course.

  4. Submitted by William Pappas on 06/25/2010 - 12:54 pm.

    Mr. Swift,

    It is fortunate for you that your mother had the skills to put dinner on the table and the selfless energy to nurture your mind and body. The real fact is that most people in poverty today do not. Their children as a result are ill prepared for school and are far behind in emotional and intellectual development. Those deficiencies, as a whole, inhibit normal development and create a spiral of poverty. I know that is hard for conservative bashers of education and those who want to shrink the beast of government to acknowledge. Unfortunately, thoughtless, immature behaviors can be the result of poor upbringing and/or behaviors learned durring the course of extreme poverty. That is what the article is all about. Yes, conservatives have to view the glass as totally empty, that the folks in poverty are there because of their very bad behavior. What these studies and others like them are attempting to do is get at the root causes of poverty which can be a very constructive enterprise. Simply pointing to their bad behavior as cause in isolation and moral judgement is relatively useless, unless you are intent on ignoring any attempt to help the poor out of poverty.

  5. Submitted by DeeAnn Christensen on 06/25/2010 - 01:08 pm.

    Mr. Swift:

    Although I too am not an investigator, I do have at least an informed understanding of poverty having worked in the largest homeless shelter in the five state area for five years.

    Do you think there might be additional complexities to children in poverty than “…dysfunctional, ill prepared parenting?”
    I would ask that you read Ruby K. Payne, Ph.D’s study on generational poverty if you truly want to understand “the hidden rules” of poverty. http://homepages.wmich.edu/~ljohnson/Payne.pdf
    Her study reflects my experience at the shelter.

    You were fortunate to have at least one significant adult who did not have a mental illness or a chronic health problem to raise you. A recent Wilder Foundation survey of the homeless found that 55% of those studied had a serious mental illness, 46% had chronic health conditions and 19% of had both. Do you think perhaps these conditions might impact parenting ability?

    I too would suggest that you not always comment, just because you can.

  6. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 06/25/2010 - 01:15 pm.

    William, I think you’re expanding the scope of this report, at least as I understand it.

    The authors are speaking to the effects of poverty on children, not the causes of poverty. I agree that there are many paths people follow into poverty, and it is true that not all of them are linked to consequences of bad behavior.

    You say “It is fortunate for you that your mother had the skills to put dinner on the table and the selfless energy to nurture your mind and body. The real fact is that most people in poverty today do not.”

    The question begs, then, “why are they having children?”

    If children are going hungry, it is most often because their parents are simply not feeding them. If they are not attending school, it is because their parents have no interest in involving themselves enough to make sure they do.

    There are tens of thousands of kids that learn how to use drugs before they can read, because that is what their parent(s) spend their time on.

    The indisputable fact is that the American welfare system has taken the real, grinding pain out of poverty. Today’s “poor” have cell phones, televisions, cars and access to at least enough food to keep mind and body together. It’s not a life you or I might choose, but for far too many people, it’s enough to keep them satisfied.

    But we both digress. To the author’s point, perhaps thinking about it this way might help.

    If your grandchild had these two, and only these two options available, which would you choose for him or her?

    A. Dedicated, involved parents living in poverty.

    B. Wealthy, self absorbed parents that leave the children to raise themselves.

  7. Submitted by bea sinna on 06/25/2010 - 01:32 pm.

    Mr. Swift,
    Have you ever heard of the cycle of poverty (or abuse or mental illness or violence) where a person growing up in poverty (or abuse or mental illness or violence)is more likely to stay there than someone who has grown up in a healthier environment. So, you were lucky: you had only one dysfunctional parent.Of course thoughtless, immature people don’t make good parents.Many thoughtless, immature people get stuck in cycles into which they were born and raised, unless someone cares enough to help them break out of it, with education, with good mental health care, with early childhood education, with parenting classes, with job training…. Yes, thank God your mother was prepared.

  8. Anonymous Submitted by Anonymous on 06/25/2010 - 03:56 pm.

    More great reporting. How many tidbits of reality do we need before we stop saying the problems with schools reside with teachers? How is a charter school, or a teach-for-awhile teacher supposed to change the learning rate of a child with a broken brain?

  9. Anonymous Submitted by Anonymous on 06/25/2010 - 04:03 pm.

    Mr Swift seems to be taking up the John Stossel argument that if you have a telephone and a color tv you are not poor. But that’s not how poverty is experienced physiologically. Extreme social and economic disparities cause people on the low end to experience high levels of stress, and its associated cortisol poisoning. Not only is constant release of cortisol harmful to adults, in children there is documented evidence that it impairs the growth and functioning of the hippocampus.

  10. Submitted by Ray Marshall on 06/25/2010 - 06:15 pm.

    I’m flabbergasted that the study seems to make no reference to single mothers, either at the time of birth or because of a breakup of the relationship.

    A single mother with one child by definition could almost always be below the poverty level if she is not working or working at the minimum wage.

    I’ve read that something like 70% of women of color are unmarried when they give birth. I believe that that is a national average. In Minnesota, the figures are probably different.

    And I would bet that if the numbers could be obtained, a high percentage of women giving birth while unmarried probably are the product of that kind of family.

  11. Submitted by William Pappas on 06/26/2010 - 10:37 am.

    Mr. Swift, you wonder why those thoughtless and emotional poverty sticken people had kids in the first place? First it is their right and second why would you expect any different outcome if they are residing in poverty in an obviously poor mental and emotional state? Sound judgement is learned from many different experiences and those who live in poverty are exposed to less of it. For me, your arguments just break down. The truth is that the child born of less caring parents from a wealthy family do have a better chance of success than those born of well-meaning and nurturing parents in poverty. This is especially true as the cost of education, even public education and the activities that go along with it, rises and less money is available to subsidize the poor. Enough.

  12. Submitted by Andrea Schaerf on 07/31/2010 - 09:32 am.

    Many people who have depression and anxiety are unable to be employed, succeed in school and or be successful parents.Add poverty to the mix and it sure is not beneficial for these familites. Being prolife I am in favor of helping all have the best lives they can. We dont force steralizations or abortion to control any groups of people. I dont understand why there isnt more emphasis on helping people develop better lives-in this case parenting skills, nutrition, access to nutritious food etc. My prolife views are that we are all responsible for each other. We must help others how we are able. Selfishness and greed are the reasons many dont. Stigma and fear the reasons for others. The reality is, this is the future. Theser families will someday take care or your parents or you in your old age. They will make new inventions to help us all or not. They are our future.

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