A friend from Wisconsin often shares news reported in that state’s media. Most recently, he sent me an article reporting on the troubling results of research into poverty and public health.
Malia Jones is an assistant scientist and social epidemiologist working in Wisconsin. As she notes, her conclusions about increases in poverty despite the economic recovery are consistent with those reached by other scholars.
We didn’t look at explanations for that but other people have, and I think what’s happening is that people at the low end of the economic spectrum are not benefiting from recovery. They’re really being left behind. So inequality is increasing in the face of an expanding economy.
Jones’ work is one more confirmation that, as she says, low-income Americans are being left behind. But her analysis didn’t stop there, and her discussion of both the immediate and long-term implications requires attention.
In short, poor children in America are getting a “double whammy.”
Jones notes that the number of children living in poverty has increased since the Great Recession, and that the existence of children living in poverty is not only a humanitarian issue, but also a critical public health issue. As she points out, exposure to the myriad problems that accompany an impoverished childhood can lead to a lifetime of disability.
It’s those kinds of stressors like housing insecurity, not being sure if there’s going to be food for dinner, living in a crummy neighborhood with violence, those stressors can impair normal brain development.
Impaired brain development often leads to behavioral outcomes; as anyone who has taught in a low-income area can attest, it affects school performance in a variety of ways. Children of poverty often lack the opportunity or means to develop the sorts of skill sets common among middle and higher income students. That, in turn, affects later access to jobs, trapping such children in a cycle of poverty.
Living in poverty also increases the likelihood of poor health. Living in poverty is a major risk factor for obesity, diabetes, hypertension, and even premature death.
It seems unconscionable that the United States would ignore the lifetime health effects of poverty on poor children who are already living in sub-optimal and stressful conditions. Even the self-satisfied and clueless scolds who insist that poor people just need to work harder can’t hold children responsible for their impoverished situations. Surely, even the adamant opponents of Obamacare, Medicaid and other efforts to make health care affordable can’t believe that it is either moral or economically reasonable to deprive children of adequate medical attention.
And surely, even self-described fiscal conservatives must realize that the long-term costs of neglecting the most basic needs of poor children are far higher than the costs of timely intervention.
Why is it that American public policy choices so often make me think of the adage: penny wise, pound foolish?