April 2016

1 in 5 American children...

...lives in poverty. That number is staggering. Worse, The American Board of Pediatrics (ABP) identifies childhood poverty as a health risk to children now and in their futures.

Research shows that living in deep and persistent poverty can cause severe, lifelong health problems, including infant mortality, poor language development, higher rates of asthma and obesity, and an increased risk of injuries.

American Board of Pediatrics, March 9, 2016

The U.S. Census defines the poverty line for a family of four as $24,008. As of 2010, the Affordable Care Act opened up Medicaid to many families below a threshold of about $30,000. This would seem to give children in poverty much better access to healthcare. The problems are deeper than healthcare costs, though.

Poor families are stretched. They live in “food deserts” or don’t have enough money to buy enough food. Or both. The parents—often the single mother—works more than one job at low pay rates, maybe a half hour or an hour from home. Too often, she doesn’t have time to take children to the doctor, cook nutritious meals for them or take them to the park, let alone take them activities like soccer. She can’t model healthy behaviors like exercise and eating right, because she doesn’t have the time or money.

Children in poverty and their parents are stressed. A growing body of research links childhood poverty with toxic stress that can alter gene expression and brain function and contributes to chronic cardiovascular, immune and psychiatric disorders, as well as behavioral difficulties.

The ABP does what it can by recommending that pediatricians seize the moment when a child comes to them. “A single question, ‘Do you have difficulty making ends meet at the end of the month?’ can help identify families who would benefit from community resources.” But doctors aren’t social workers. They can’t follow up on poverty issues any more than they can follow up on medication and therapy compliance.”

We think of poverty as a political hot potato. But everyone can get on board. Here’s a liberal media outlet (Slate) quoting one of the current Republican presidential candidates: “Now, when you die and get to the meeting with St. Peter, he’s probably not going to ask you much about what you did about keeping government small,” John Kasich said. ”But he is going to ask you what you did for the poor. You better have a good answer.”