Children who experience poverty in early childhood are more likely to have smaller brains, as well as a lessened ability to process certain types of sensory information, new research published in the journals JAMA Pediatrics and the Journal of Neuroscience has found. More from Time.com:
Previous work suggested that poverty can contribute to compromised cognitive function and low performance in schools, but using imaging, researchers have documented measurable changes in the brain tied to poverty.
In one study, published in JAMAPediatrics,children who grew up in impoverished households showed smaller white and grey matter in their brains compared with those who had more means — these make up the density of nerve connections between different parts of the brain. The less wealthy kids also developed smaller hippocampus and amygdala regions, which are involved in regulating attention, memory and emotions.
According to the researchers from Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, the smaller brain regions may be due to the increased stress and anxiety that these children experience growing up in families where finances are tight, and therefore parental support and interaction with children suffers.
In the second study, published in the Journal of Neuroscience, scientists at Northwestern University, in Illinois, connected lower maternal education, a common symptom of poverty, to poor processing of sound in the brains of children raised in lower-resource environments. The researchers found that adolescents whose mothers had less education were more likely to register more varied and noisier nerve responses when hearing speech than those whose mothers had more schooling. That response, according to previous work, could translate into poor reading skills. The scientific team suspects that the lack of constant verbal interaction between mother and child could be one factor in the noisier brain responses to speech, since such back-and-forth can prime a still-developing brain to isolate and recognize speech more efficiently. Other data established that children in higher-income families are exposed to 30 million more words than those in lower-income families where parents have less education.
The good news, however, is that the effects may be reversible. Families don’t chose poverty, but changes in caregiving, especially during early childhood, could avoid some of the physical changes the scientists measured.
The economic well-being of American children has suffered in 2011 during the recession, according to the annual “Kids Count” survey released by the Annie E. Casey Foundation. Nationwide, the number of children living in homes affected by unemployment has greatly increased, and poverty rates are increasing in middle-class, two-parent households where parents have college degrees. More from The Associated Press:
The Southwest has been hit particularly hard. New Mexico, for the first time, has slipped to worst in the nation when it comes to child well-being. More than 30 percent of children in the state were living in poverty in 2011 and nearly two-fifths had parents who lacked secure employment, according to this year’s Kids Count survey.
Nevada is ranked No. 48, followed by Arizona. Mississippi, which has traditionally held last place, made slight improvements in early childhood education while reading and math proficiency for some students increased, putting the state at No. 49.
Overall, the report shows there have been gains in education and health nationally, but since 2005, there have been serious setbacks when it comes to the economic well-being of children.
‘‘There’s little doubt that things are getting worse,’’ said Kim Posich, executive director of the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty. ‘‘Aside from the fact the New Mexico economy has been so slow to turn around, the systems that generally serve people who are the working poor and suddenly lose their jobs or face greater hardship, all those systems have been strained beyond the max.’’
In Arizona, charities and government programs were cut during the recession, making it more difficult for families to get by and rebuild, said Dana Wolfe Naimark of the Children’s Action Alliance in Phoenix.
‘‘So many things were slashed just when people needed it the most,’’ she said. ‘‘That is a key policy issue that we do have choices over. We can find ways to rebuild that investment. It’s not OK to just throw up our hands and say, ‘We can’t.’’’
According to the Kids Count report, a lingering concern is the effect of unemployment on children, particularly long-term unemployment. Researchers found that more than 4 million workers were unemployed for more than six months, and more than 3 million were without work for a year or more.
The study, by researchers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, drew on the height and weight measurements of 27 million children who were part of the federal Women, Infants and Children program, which provides food subsidies to low-income mothers and their children up to the age of 5.
The study was based on data from 30 states and the District of Columbia and covered the years from 1998 to 2010. The share of children who were obese declined to 14.9 percent in 2010, down from 15.2 percent in 2003, after rising between 1998 and 2003. Extreme obesity also declined, dropping to 2.07 percent in 2010 from 2.22 percent in 2003. The study was published Tuesday in The Journal of the American Medical Association.
The report defined a 3-year-old boy of average height, almost 3 feet 2 inches tall, as being obese when he weighed 37 pounds or more. The same boy was categorized as being extremely obese when he weighed 44 pounds or more.
“The declines we’re presenting here are pretty modest, but it is a change in direction,” said Heidi M. Blanck, one of the study’s authors and the acting director of the Division of Nutrition, Physical Activity and Obesity at the disease centers. “We were going up before. And this data shows we’re going down. For us, that’s pretty exciting.”
An innovative new program in New York City is offering nurses special training to offer support and guidance to low-income, first-time moms who may be uneducated on how to give their babies–and themselves–the crucial care that can keep them healthy and thriving. The New York Times reports:
“The program, which was started in upstate New York in the 1970s and has been adopted in 42 states, is one of the rare public initiatives that have shown consistent and rigorously tested benefits for the mothers and children, as well as significant savings for taxpayers.
In different studies on different demographic groups, women in the program have had fewer premature deliveries, smoked less during pregnancy, spent less time on public assistance, waited longer to have subsequent children, had fewer arrests and convictions, and maintained longer contact with their baby’s fathers. Their children have had fewer language delays and reported less abuse and neglect, slightly higher I.Q. scores, fewer arrests and convictions by age 19, and less depression and anxiety.
A 2011 study of New York City’s Nurse-Family Partnership program, which currently has 91 nurses serving 1,940 families, projected that by the time a child in the program turns 12, the city, state and federal governments will have saved a combined $27,895, with additional savings thereafter — more than twice the program’s cost per child. The study was conducted by the Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation using data from the Nurse-Family Partnership’s research at three locations, then extrapolated to New York.
This fall, I attended a dozen home visits, all in the Bronx, with five nurses — three from the Visiting Nurse Service of New York, which contracts with the city to provide service in the Bronx, and two, including Ms. Schmidt, with the health department’s Targeted Citywide Initiative, which tackles the most at-risk cases. The nurses’ styles and backgrounds varied; the families’ needs and challenges even more so. Each mother participated voluntarily and at no cost.
The problems were many: violence on the street, abuse in the women’s past, illness, anger, obesity, insecure housing or financial circumstances. Most of the women had the poor luck to have been born in poverty. Like their middle-class counterparts, none came into the world knowing how to raise a baby.”
A new national “movement” called “Too Small to Fail” launched Wednesday, pledging to use the power of media and advertising to raise awareness of the growing needs of children in a nation that is, organizers say, too focused on the big problems of the economy and not focused enough on the consequences of that economy for its smallest citizens. More than 16 million kids now live at or below the poverty line, the highest number of children in poverty in 50 years.
The campaign was created by the nonprofit organization The Center for the Next Generation, and it is hoping to call attention to a number of financial and health-related problems facing American kids, including:
More than one-quarter of our children have chronic health conditions such as obesity and asthma, a doubling since 1991;
American students – even those from educated families – are lagging far behind international competitors in math, science, and reading, and risk losing their edge in the highly competitive global marketplace;
More than half of students from middle-income families who score highest on their 8th grade reading and math tests don’t complete college, undermining their social mobility and future income security;
Two-thirds of students completing college or other post-secondary education or training are burdened with heavy debt, limiting their ability to build middle-class lives.
The campaign will urge government, business, and community organizations alike to take steps to help families live more financially and emotionally stable lives. Parents magazine and Parents.com are among the many media partners participating in the campaign, and an initial ad is set to air during cable television programs that depict children in danger.