The Common Good

Is Poverty Killing our Kids?

Despite all the modern conveniences of the 21st century, our information-saturated culture, an exhaustive supply of self-help books, and giant advances in medical technology, doesn’t it seem like our society is more stressed, our anxiety higher, and more of our kids prescribed behavior modification drugs?

What if one of the reasons for our strung-out culture was the social, emotional, mental, and physiological outworking of the effects of poverty?

In the latest release of the Shriver Report, Dr. Nadine Burke Harris, founder of the California Pacific Medical Center’s Bayview Child Health Center, has found through medical research and experiences of her patients that the stress of poverty can be manifested in alarming behaviors and predispositions.

In Harris’ example, a 6-year-old boy displayed disruptive classroom behavior (not sitting still, running out of the class, and hitting and kicking). He even struck her when his mother brought him into the clinic. Dr. Harris learned from the family that the young boy had suffered several traumatic experiences in his short life, including an alcoholic (and then absent) father, and had witnessed domestic violence within his home. His now-single mother struggled to make ends meet.

It was a story common at Bayview Child Health Center. The clinic is located in the Bayview-Hunters Point neighborhood, which is home to the highest concentration of children in San Francisco. Many of the families are single parent, female-led. Bayview has “thousands of families struggling every day to make ends meet,” said Dr. Harris.

“As a physician,” Harris wrote, “I could see that the stress of poverty was affecting my patients in a very direct way, the question was, how? I immersed myself in research on how stress and trauma affect the developing brains and bodies of children. What I found validated the clinical picture that presented itself to me daily, and it transformed my frustration into hope.”

In her studies to understand how children’s health is negatively affected as a direct result of the stresses brought on by poverty, Harris revealed some sobering findings. Researchers at Kaiser San Diego and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention conducted a study known as Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs). They surveyed more than 17,000 adults for childhood traumas including neglect, abuse, exposure to domestic violence, parental incarceration, mental illness, substance abuse, and divorce. The researchers discovered a high correlation of ACEs with negative health outcomes.

Obviously, ACEs are very common. More than 67 percent of study participants experienced at least one, and 12.6 percent had experienced four or more. Basically, the more ACEs an individual had experienced, the more likely they were to face health problems later in life. To illustrate this point, a person with four or more ACEs is 260 percent at greater risk of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) than a person with no ACEs. The statistics continue: 250 percent higher risk of hepatitis, 460 percent higher risk of depression, and 360 percent higher risk of ischemic heart disease (the number one cause of death in the U.S.).

The result of chronic stress is particularly damaging on a child’s still-developing brain, organs, and nervous system. When this happens, Harris noted that the “cascade of chemicals and reactions goes from saving one’s life to damaging one’s health.”

Harris explained, “the effect of trauma … dramatically increases the chance he will engage in high-risk behaviors such as smoking, substance use, and early sexual activity.” Clearly, these practices can be very detrimental to one’s health.

Yet even if Harris’ young patient declined to participate in such high-risk behaviors, he would have a higher likelihood of chronic disease — children experiencing chronic stress exhibit high rates of chronic inflammation as adults. Such inflammation contributes to health risks like heart disease.

So, while her young patient’s classroom behavior placed him at greater risk of failing in school, (and all the risks that itself entails), he is also much more likely to suffer COPD, cancer, autoimmune disease, heart disease, and hepatitis due to his high number of ACEs.

To offer hope that a destructive, unhealthy life sentence isn’t inevitable for people with high ACEs scores, Dr. Harris shared several healing therapies for those exposed to trauma and chronic stress. Some include a two-generation approach, helping parents confront and deal healthily with their own past traumas. This helps to break the cyclical nature of generational trauma. Other times, the clinic may provide single mothers counseling and connect them with social services and community resources to help address the stressors they are facing, which in turn reduces the level of chronic stress on her child.

Additional techniques include meditation, biofeedback, and healthy diet and exercise. Harris noted that Medicaid, which does not cover the charge of some of these interventions, covers 90 percent of her clinic’s patients. Limited access to healthy food and limited health insurance leaves many parents unable to secure the best treatments for their child.

There are myriad ways poverty hurts the poor. Its traces are visible in the physical, emotional, and mental state of our children. These children, through no fault of their own, are bearing the brunt of poverty in their very bodies. As Harris said, “this convergence of basic science, clinical research, and public health is reframing a problem so common that it was hidden in plain sight: Chronic stress and trauma are toxic to our children.”

Let’s work to remedy the root of many stresses and traumas for these kids. Let’s get serious about addressing poverty, for their sake, and for our shared future.

Anna Hall is campaigns assistant for Sojourners.

Image: Child sitting alone, Suzanne Tucker / Shutterstock.com

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