Poverty continues to be a problem in the United States. Research indicates that 17% of American children live in families with incomes below the federal poverty level and approximately 39% live in families that could be classified as low-income. Although there are more white children who live in poverty, the percentage of Hispanic and African American children growing up in poverty still remains disproportionately high.
The term poverty is usually used to simply refer to a lack of money, but living in a state of financial instability is both physically and emotionally damaging. While a child who grows up in a middle class suburb is taught that he or she can go to college, marry, have a rewarding career, and make a meaningful contribution to the world at large, a child born into poverty must struggle to simply make it to adulthood. The long term effects of poverty are why this is a social issue that deserves public attention.
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A Problem with Lasting Effects
Unfortunately, poverty becomes an obstacle to future success before a child is even born. Since poor women are more likely to be uninsured, they often wait to seek proper prenatal care. In addition, they may suffer from high blood pressure, diabetes, or other medical conditions that place their child at risk of premature birth. This often leads to physical and/or developmental delays that cause a child to lag behind his or her peers.
Even accounting for the problems associated with their mother's poor prenatal care, children in poverty have greater health concerns than their more affluent counterparts. For example, problems with asthma are more common among kids who live in older buildings with poor ventilation. Obesity is also significantly more common among poor children, since a diet rich in lean protein and fresh produce is typically too expensive for a low income family even with the assistance of food stamps.
Mental health is another area which is impacted by growing up in poverty. The stressful situations that often accompany poverty, such as divorce, death, job loss, or drug addiction, can create feelings of anxiety and depression that can last well into adulthood. Parents who are struggling to provide basic necessities are often unable to spend much quality time with their children, leading to low self esteem and lifelong difficulties forming strong relationships with others. Spending large amounts of time in poor quality daycare, a situation which is much more common among children in poverty, can also have a negative impact on a child's emotional health.
Once they reach elementary school, children who live in poverty often receive a substandard education because they are forced to move frequently or attend under-funded schools. This is one of the most troubling long term effects of poverty. A child who does not learn to read and write proficiently while in elementary school is likely to continue to struggle as a high school student. With poor grades in high school, his/her prospects for attending college are seriously limited. Since career advancement in the modern economy is often tied to educational attainment, the lack of a college degree sets the poor child up for a lifetime of struggle.
Teenagers who live in poverty are significantly more likely to experiment with drugs, alcohol, and risky sexual behavior. Poor teens are also more likely to engage in unlawful acts, ranging from minor shoplifting to serious gang activity. At a time when they should be laying the foundation for their success as adults, teenagers who live in poverty are often making bad decisions that will only serve to further complicate their lives.
Understanding Generational Poverty
According to sociologists, there are two different types of poverty. Situational poverty occurs when a family suffers a negative change in finances due to an illness, job loss, or other temporary event. Living in situational poverty, although still traumatic, usually has minimal lasting effects. Generational poverty, however, is a persistent and long term struggle that occurs when two or more generations of the same family are living in poverty. Generational poverty is thought by many to be one of the most difficult long term effects of poverty to fix.
When entire families are struggling to meet their basic needs, a "culture of poverty" begins to be formed. People begin to develop ingrained beliefs that limit their chances for future success. This may include considering crime an acceptable alternative to traditional employment or not believing children should strive for good grades in school. While children who grow up in middle class or upper class families are taught to focus on the future and the potential for changing their lives, children living in generational poverty often grow up believing that their present circumstances are determined only by fate and factors beyond their control.
What Can We Do?
The federal government has instituted a variety of programs to help lessen the long term effects of poverty on a child's development. The Women, Infant and Children (WIC) Nutrition Program helps to provide nutritious food for pregnant women and children under the age of five. Head Start offers free preschool to children from poor families, helping to lay the groundwork for future academic success. Every state in the United States also has a program to provide free or low cost health insurance to children in poverty.
Various non-profit community organizations have also begun programs to fight the long terms effects of poverty. Big Brothers Big Sisters of America provides positive adult role models for at risk children. The Salvation Army offers summer camp experiences for low income children, teaching sports, arts and crafts, music, and outdoor wilderness skills. At Christmas, many churches sponsor needy families to make sure all children are able to have a festive holiday celebration regardless of their financial circumstances.
Although these programs do help alleviate the burden of poverty somewhat, the war on poverty is far from being over. Until there are enough jobs available that provide a true living wage and more assistance for parents struggling with addiction and mental health issues, poor children will continue to be at a distinct disadvantage.