Point of View

Making the most of the momentum on fighting child poverty

March 4, 2013 

In most North Carolina communities, 25 percent of all children are poor. In Durham, the percentage is 27, meaning 14,000 children live in poverty. This is shameful and unacceptable. We must change it.

In January, we held a Faith Summit on Child Poverty at Union Baptist Church in Durham. To our surprise, 500 people attended, double the number we expected. There seems to be a new energy and commitment to reducing the growing child poverty rate. We need multiple strategies and passionate advocates, starting right at the beginning of a child’s life.

Early childhood is a time of enormous potential and enormous vulnerability. A newborn’s brain is one-quarter the size of an adult’s brain. By age 3, the brain is 80 percent the size of the adult brain. In only three years, there are huge changes in brain structure and functioning. Nurturing experiences will help the brain develop in healthy ways, while s lack of adequate sensory stimulation or over-stimulation can impair brain development.

Traumatic or stressful experiences are particularly damaging to neurobiological function. When children in poverty live in chronic stress or violence, their brains and bodies get stuck in a state of constant vigilance, with high levels of stress hormones that affect health in major ways.

This ongoing level of trauma and high stress is sometimes called “toxic stress” and is found in children experiencing abuse, neglect, family violence, ongoing community violence, parental depression or numerous adverse experiences. We know from scans of the brain that children experiencing “toxic stress” show changes in brain structure that include loss of brain volume and detrimental changes in specific areas of the brain. “Toxic stress” undermines a young child’s ability to master developmental and social-emotional tasks fundamental to school readiness and life success.

High-quality, safe places for young children, such as early childhood centers or preschool programs, improve developmental and social-emotional skills. Caregivers must be well-trained and adequately compensated, and there must be low staff-to-child ratios.

Low-income children involved in these types of programs show positive effects into adulthood, including better graduation rates, more college education, lower criminal activity and less dependence on government benefits. Economic-impact studies have shown that for every $1 invested in early childhood centers, $13 is saved in future costs to society. High-quality early childhood programs save money in the long run.

Supporting parents through parenting education can also change the trajectory of a child’s life. Some of the effective programs are research-based home visiting programs (such as Healthy Families, Nurse Family Partnership, Parents as Teachers and Early Head Start) and parent education groups (such as Incredible Years, Positive Discipline, Triple P and MotherRead).

Home-visiting programs for children in poverty that use a respectful, family-centered approach lead to decreased parental stress, fewer child behavior problems, better health outcomes and fewer reports of maltreatment.

Improving economic stability may reduce stress in the family and improve child outcomes. Any of these changes will improve the quality of life in low-income families: connection to community resources like WIC (which supplies healthy food for children) and Medicaid (health insurance for low-income children); jobs with a living wage; affordable housing, childcare subsidies and access to transportation.

There are things that we can do to support young children living in poverty to increase school readiness and reduce the achievement gap. As a community, we must have the will to do the things that we know are effective.

This investment needs to come from multiple sources: foundations, agencies, state government, congregations and individuals. Solutions for reducing poverty must begin investing in the birth-to-5 population. Supporting young children now will contribute to North Carolina’s economy for decades to come.

Jan Williams is director of Healthy Families Durham, and Mel Williams is director of End Poverty Durham

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