Imagine what it’s like to be eight years old and spend your days hanging around motel parking lots or watching TV soap operas instead of being in school learning like other kids your age. Imagine being kept out of school because your family moves constantly—from a motel in one city to temporary housing in another—and your mom doesn’t want to have to move you from school to school constantly.
For many of us, this kind of nomadic life is hard to fathom. But for the one in five children who are poor in America, the stress of poverty is a daily reality. And it affects kids’ brains and bodies.
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) calls poverty one of the most widespread and persistent health risks facing children today. Research shows that living in deep and persistent poverty can cause severe, lifelong health problems. Even short-term spells of poverty can expose children to hardships like food or housing insecurity, not to mention homelessness, all of which affect how well and long kids live. And new research shows that the effects of poverty can stunt areas in children’s brains that are involved in critical thinking, reading, comprehension, language and the ability to learn.
Pediatricians see parents who struggle with financial or mental health challenges every day. Let’s go back to the mom of the eight-year-old child in the intro, for example. This mom is doing the best she can, but she can’t provide basic food, shelter and the stability that her child needs to thrive. For the mom, living in survival mode is stressful, but for her child, it might be even worse.
That’s why AAP is now recommending for the first time that pediatricians routinely screen all children for poverty risk factors, adding it to the well-visit checklist. Asking a simple question to parents during the visit (e.g., “Are you having any trouble making ends meet?”) can open a conversation that can connect struggling families with resources they need to get back on track.
It makes sense for AAP to lead this charge. Pediatricians see every day the effects of unsafe housing, poor nutrition, and toxic stress or trauma on the physical and mental health of both children and parents. And parents trust their pediatricians and heed their advice. So in the same way pediatricians diagnose ear infections or asthma, they can identify families who need help and link them with services that can get their children on a path to better health.
It’s great to see pediatricians and other professionals taking these steps, but a lot more will need to happen to reduce childhood poverty, a problem that plagues urban, rural, and suburban areas.
AAP is also calling on state and federal lawmakers to invest in young children because poverty is expensive, costing more than $500 billion a year in low productivity and poor health, not to mention increased risk of crime and incarceration.
To start, policymakers should protect and expand funding for programs that already are working such as Early Head Start and Head Start, Medicaid, and the Children’s Health Insurance Program. They should also promote jobs programs and increase low-income parents’ earnings, a move that has been shown to improve children’s outcomes. This would include supporting a higher minimum wage, education and job training, and preserving and expanding the Earned Income Tax Credit and other tax credits that have been shown to help families stay afloat.
With pediatricians and policymakers on board, all children living in poverty can get on a path to better health and have more chances for a healthy life.