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How Poverty Affects Children's Health in America

Photograph by Twenty20

If you've ever struggled—I mean, really struggled—to pay the bills, imagine how hard it would be to raise a family in poverty.

Nearly 15 million kids in the United States live below the federal poverty threshold because parents—despite collecting paychecks—are unable to afford basic necessities, such as food, clothing, transportation, housing and education, according to The National Center for Children in Poverty (NCCP). But did you know that living in poverty could also be detrimental to a child’s health?

Based on information provided by the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), stripping away the essential needs of a child can profoundly affect birth weight, infant mortality, chronic illness and language development. And let’s not forget the lack of nutrition they could be experiencing because the good stuff doesn’t come cheap.

But wait, there’s more. Impoverished children often experience “toxic stress”—another way of saying anxiety—because living in poverty is about as stressful as it gets. They are also more likely to suffer “accidental injuries” from living in rough neighborhoods or homes that aren’t safe. As for school readiness, poverty presents a struggle, too. How are parents, who often can’t afford to put enough food on their kids' plates, supposed to pay for books, supplies and extracurricular activities at school? The answer is simple: They don’t.

Impoverished children often experience 'toxic stress' because living in poverty is about as stressful as it gets.

Another way to measure the impact poverty has on a child’s health is by taking a look at their environment. The vast majority of these families live in older homes where lead exposure—which can cause serious damage to a child’s development—exceeds the threshold for safety, the AAP reported in 2003. At the time, more than 1.5 million children (younger than 6 years) showed signs of elevated levels of lead in their blood.

From physical and mental health struggles to problems with self-regulation and executive functions, such as inattention, impulsivity, defiance and poor peer relationships, the list of adverse effects that living in poverty has on a child goes on and on.

What’s worse, even short-term poverty can impede a child’s social, emotional and intellectual growth.

“Child poverty is associated with lifelong hardship,” reports the AAP. “Poor developmental and psychosocial outcomes are accompanied by a significant financial burden, not just for the children and families who experience them but also for the rest of society.”

On top of all that, inner-city communities typically fall short when it comes to building social networks for low-income parents, which can lead to increased stress and, sadly, even child abuse. That is to say, these parents have no other choice but to shake off their fear and face communities that “exacerbate rather than mitigate the disadvantages of poverty.”

Thankfully, the world is full of people who want to help underprivileged families. These advocates, primarily those who double as pediatricians, may be a poverty-stricken child’s best chance at living a normal, healthy life.

"Pediatricians provide a unique and powerful voice to advocate for children and families impacted by poverty," reports the AAP. “By addressing poverty as a critical child health and development issue, pediatricians can influence public policies and support programs that improve the lives of lo​w-income children and families.”

For those in need of medical care, NeedyMeds offers an easily searchable database of free, low-cost or sliding-scale clinics by ZIP code. Children’s Health Fund is another great resource, but their locations are fairly limited.

The Vaccines for Children Program (VFC) is another way low-income parents can keep their children healthy. Created by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in 1993, the federally funded VFC provides immunization free of charge to children who otherwise might not be able to afford the vaccines.

For pregnant women, especially those considered “at-risk,” The Maternal, Infant, and Early Childhood Home Visiting (MIECHV) Program is the answer to women's new mother questions. Not only do they help with breastfeeding, they also teach parents how to improve their family's health and provide opportunities for their children.

In addition, low-income families get full access to critical nutrition support programs, such as Women, Infants and Children (WIC), Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and The National School Lunch Program, as well as educational tools like Reach Out and Read—suggesting books and reading aloud to stimulate early brain development—and Video Interaction Project (VIP), an evidence-based parenting program that uses videotaping and developmentally appropriate toys to strengthen early development and literacy in children.

Though many families living in poverty don’t have access to a computer, nearly every public library in the U.S. does, and access to their internet is 100 percent free.

“Poverty is an important social determinant of health and contributes to child health disparities,” the AAP reports. Perhaps their call to action, demanding reforms "to eliminate child poverty," will one day be heard by those who can truly make a difference: you, me, anyone and everyone willing to lend a helping hand.

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