Many of us receive numerous requests to contribute (in a variety of ways) to positively affect substantive societal issues. It’s simply not feasible to respond positively to each request.
Personal priorities and passions often define the focus of our time, efforts and financial contributions. My personal passions are the environment and the vulnerable.
Children are high on my “vulnerable” list. A few years ago I did research on poverty within a work project. My research included the effect of poverty on young children.
It was a sick-to-your-stomach learning experience. Several aspects were gut wrenching. One, the number and percentages of children in poverty in the U.S., Kansas, Missouri and in the Kansas City area was astounding.
Two, the destructive physical, mental and emotional lifetime effects for a toddler living in poverty were beyond extreme. Perhaps I was naïve.
It became clear that we, collectively, are setting up children — before they even enter school — to fail in life. My research is focused on finding facts to support — or counter — general statements.
For this column I sought credible research specific to the effects of living in poverty on preschool children. I’ve narrowed my results to two distinct and reliable studies, the first from the National Center for Education Statistics, and the second from Science magazine (summarizing a study published in Nature Neuroscience).
1. Assessments of knowledge and skills relevant for specific ages showed children in poverty at 9 months old had lower proficiency levels in three of five cognitive skills. At age 2, deficiencies were found for those living in poverty (e.g. 29 percent vs. 39 percent proficiency in listening comprehension). These deficiencies remained consistent at age 4.
2. Using MRI scans, neuroscientists measured the surface area of children’s cerebral cortices, the area where most advanced cognitive processing takes place (e.g. language, reading). They found that children from families with incomes under $25,000 had cortical surface areas that were about 6 percent smaller than children from families with incomes above $150,000.
The net takeaway? Subjecting young children to poverty reduces their cognitive abilities before they are even 1 year old and continues as they age. Essentially, we are decreasing their ability to learn. Reduced learning ability drives a continuous cycle of poverty, as these children become adults unable to attain an education and/or skills that enable them to become productive, responsible adults. Our government, at every level, has decreased funding in one or more ways that lead to poverty having a greater effect on young children.
I’ve heard plenty of politicians’ statements about their intent to address poverty. If only those statements were followed by substantive policies and funding. In my view, their failures are inexcusable.
Thankfully, many community groups work tirelessly to fill the gaps with food (particularly in summer months), clothing, school supplies, etc. These efforts make a significant difference in the lives of many children and families. If only their work were enough.
We live in relative wealth. Why is reducing poverty not a top priority, given its importance to the future of our country and our communities? It’s an incredibly sound investment.
We each have the opportunity — and the obligation — to act to reduce poverty, particularly among young children. We can:
▪ Provide assistance, directly and/or through financial contributions.
▪ Make our voices heard.
▪ Cast ballots in the fall elections. Our votes count.
These children can’t bring about change. We can. We must.
Lisa Hays of Independence operates her own business intelligence firm, A Fresh Perspective LLC. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.