Child Poverty Is a Public Health Crisis

You'll frequently hear social justice advocates say that one in five American children is living in poverty. That's an accurate snapshot; at this moment, about 20 percent of kids in the U.S. are poor. But the movie version is even worse. Over the course of their childhoods, 39 percent of U.S. children will experience poverty at some point, according to the Urban Institute.

Let me put that in context:

  • Four cases of the ebola virus in the U.S. mobilized health departments, changed the way airports operated and dominated national media.
  • Even a temporary period of poverty puts a child at risk of lifelong disadvantage. So when 39 percent of our children are being exposed to such harm, that is a public health crisis -- quite possibly the most serious one this country has ever faced.

    Poor children are susceptible to a host of health problems, including asthma, low birth weight and lead poisoning. They are more likely to have emotional or behavioral problems. As they grow, their school achievement is lower and rates of drop-out are higher. Teenage girls in poverty are more likely to become pregnant than their better off peers. Their children will also be at risk for being in poor health and struggling in school.

    If we don't care about heading off these harms out of basic decency, we should care out of self-interest. Every year a child spends in poverty, results in a cost of $12,000 in future productivity, the Children's Defense Fund projected in 2003.

    So what do we do? I've written before about the Annie E. Casey Foundation's "Two-Generation Approach" to fighting childhood poverty. Casey wisely argues that we best help kids when we help the whole family. Research shows that a parent's mental health affects a child's well being. So helping parents with the stress and depression that can accompany financial hard times is good for everyone.

    We also know that children who spend some time in poverty are much more likely to complete high school and to go on to college if their parents graduated high school. Making high school completion practical and accessible for parents is critical.

    Children who move frequently or who live in disadvantaged neighborhoods do worse. We can lessen this effect by making it easier for kids to stay in their home school district after an eviction or foreclosure -- or better still, by finding ways to keep families in their homes when they go through rough patches.

    Finally, the longer kids spend in poverty, the more negative the effects. So the most straightforward solution is to get families out of poverty, or prevent them from sinking into it at all. That would require a national mobilization of resources -- but that's what you do in a crisis.