Editorial: Poverty holds kids back


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Children learn amazingly fast. Walking, talking, reading, writing, and counting are just a few of the basic skills they learn within just the first few years of life. It underlines just how powerful and how malleable the human brain is. Of course, as people age, it generally becomes harder to learn those things that come so easily to the youngest in society.

Although relatively brief, this is why the early stages of life are so crucial: they provide a foundation for an individual’s future. Unfortunately for many children, their family’s income — over which these kids have absolutely no control — is a strong predictor of how well they’re going to develop.

A policy report by the Kids Count Project of the Annie E. Casey Foundation found that of 8-year-olds whose families had low incomes (below 200 percent of the poverty line), just 19 percent had mental abilities appropriate for their age. It also noted that for children in the same age group with higher family incomes, 50 percent had age-appropriate intellectual skills.

Aside from mental skills, children from higher-income families also tend to rank higher than children from lower-income families on social and emotional development, engagement in school, and physical well-being.

Income inequality is one thing. When the outcomes for children are this drastically unequal, there is a serious social problem. Children are being punished for the rest of their lives for what is far beyond their control. In some cases, they do overcome their socioeconomic circumstances, but those are the exceptions to the rule.

Nationally, nearly half of all 8-year-olds are in low-income households, while in Iowa it’s mildly better at 40 percent.

With a problem that is so pervasive in the lives of so many children, there is no choice but to develop a system that reduces the unjust outcomes that affect far too many. No single program will fix this. And no single institution can take this on all by itself. It will take a series of initiatives to combat this kind of inequality and we encourage everyone — ordinary people, lawmakers, community leaders, etc. — to do whatever they can to help low-income children overcome their cruel circumstances.

Of course, the parents of these children do have the responsibility to look after them and are the most important adults in their children’s lives. However, these parents often have to juggle numerous jobs, navigate the complex public-assistance bureaucracy, and spend substantial time commuting, all on top of the ordinary parental duties. Now imagine how much harder it is to raise a child when you’re a single parent in this kind of situation.

Many of these are stresses that higher income families live do not suffer, giving those parents more time to spend with their children and allowing them to provide better resources. Higher-income families typically have more education, live in more upscale neighborhoods with safer homes and less crime, have better connections to people in high places, and many other assets that allow them to more easily care for their children.

The Kids Count report reported that “high-quality early childhood programs that include supports for families have a powerful and lasting impact on children as they progress through school and adulthood.”

The huge disparity in child development based on income must not continue when children have zero control over their circumstances, and especially when close to half of all children are in low-income families.

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