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Research: Poverty’s Impact on A Child’s Future Is Most Pernicious in Early Childhood

Published:  April 9, 2010
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Today we feature a guest post from J.M. Holland, a child development specialist for a Head Start program in Richmond, Va., a nationally board certified pre-K teacher and a regular contributor to the blog Inside Pre-K, run by Pre-K Now, a campaign of the Pew Center on the States.

A new study finds that poverty in early childhood has more harmful effects than poverty in adolescence, with the largest impacts on the poorest children. The research is the latest evidence of the need for more pro-active public policies to alleviate the effects of poverty on young children.
It is a study that rings very true to me as a child development specialist and former Head Start teacher.
The study, "Early-Childhood Poverty and Adult Attainment, Behavior, and Health", was written by Greg Duncan, a professor of education at the University of California at Irvine; Kathleen M. Ziol Guest, at the Institute for Children and Poverty andAriel Kalil at the University of Chicago. It was published in the January/February Issue of Child Development.
Their work takes advantage of data from a long running study of household income, the Panel Study of Income Dynamics (PSID), that provides insights into the symptoms of poverty by tracking a cohort of children born between 1968 and 1975. Numerous early childhood studies have pointed out correlations between childhood poverty and school success, long term health, job earnings, and crime, but few have isolated the effects of poverty enough to point to the stage of childhood when poverty has the most lasting and negative impact on that child's future.
Duncan and his colleagues set out to do just that. Building on Duncan's previous work with the same data set more than 10 years ago. the researchers identified links between poverty throughout childhood and quality of life more than 30 years later.  
"We are the first study to link high-quality income data across the entire childhood period with adult outcomes measured as late as age 37," the authors write.
Taking a multi-disciplinary approach,the researchers use several statistical models to account for several several aspects of a child's development that might be affected by poverty including prenatal and early natal development, social emotional development related to parental stress and the effects of poverty on families' purchasing power. They also considered changes in families' incomes over time to make distinctions between the causes, symptoms, and effects of living poor.
They found that poverty in early childhood is more potent than in adolescence, with the largest effect on  the poorest children. A rise in parental income matters more to children birth to age five than it does for middle income children. Children who were poor between the ages of 3 to 5 years old were less likely than impoverished older children to finish high school on-time. When compared to children at twice the poverty level, children who were poor from birth to age 6 completed two years less of school, received $826 more in food stamps, and reported higher levels of stress.
Once they reached adulthood, this cohort had a 50 percent greater chance of being overweight, the study found. Men were two times as likely as their non-poor peers to be arrested and women were six times more likely to have a child out-of-wedlock before age 21. These same adults worked 451 fewer hours than their more affluent childhood peers.
According to the study, the findings "imply that a $3,000 annual increase in income between a child’s prenatal year and fifth birthday is associated with 19 percent higher earnings and a 135-hour increase in work hours" when they reach adulthood.
Why such significant differences? The researchers lay out several potential reasons: The effects of poverty on brain development are linked to cognitive ability in later years. Poverty can affect a family by elevating the stress parents feel and causing an increased likelihood of harsh parenting practices. These practices have the greatest impact during the early childhood years when the mother-child relationship serves as the foundation for a child's ability to regulate his emotions. That regulation, in turn, has an effect on children's achievement, behavior, and health. With little money to spare beyond day-to-day living expenses, parents can’t afford to financially support emergent literacy with books, educational toys and activities. These experiences in the early years are the basis of prior knowledge necessary for later school success.
Poverty can even touch children in the womb, with pregnant mothers' low incomes leading them to purchase less nutritious food , which leads to babies born at lower birth weights. That same lack of nutrition can lead to unhealthy weight gain as children grow. The pattern of low birth weight followed by rapid weight gain can lead to insulin resistance, the primary characteristic of diabetes, according to researchers into childhood links to adult disease.
The study provides some of the strongest evidence yet of the link between early childhood poverty and long-term adult outcomes. A proactive birth to five public policy, targeting the well being of our youngest citizens, would go a long way toward better outcomes for all of society.
As a professional who has worked for years with young children in poverty, I can attest to what these findings show: I have seen poverty’s effect on real families, and I have seen what even a small bump in income can do to help. The Head Start program is designed to involve parents in their children’s learning and to help families set goals and make good decisions related to changing their family's situation. Sometimes, for example, a family goal can be as simple as using an annual tax refund to purchase a car, enabling a parent to get to and from a community college, find an apartment in a better part of town, get a better job that happens to be far away from the bus line, and drive children to places that would expose them to more of the world than their block and the road from the corner to the school.
When I was teaching, I saw the effects of decreased poverty on families over several years. I have taught whole families of children. Over time, as I watched younger brothers and sisters mature into second and third graders, I saw them have an easier time in school than their older siblings. I attribute that, in part, to Head Start’s family service component, which helped their parents become more financially stable than they were just a few years earlier when their first-born children entered Head Start. Their parents gained jobs, went to school, and could afford transportation. Because these parents weren’t worrying about making ends meet, I saw them out in the community at the library or cultural events. I saw how the benefits of just a few thousand dollars a year increase in income could totally change a young child’s life.

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