As Congress begins its budget deliberations, lawmakers should be concerned not only with how they'll allocate funds next year but also with the long-term implications of their decisions. Cuts to effective programs that ensure children start life on a positive path, such as WIC and home visiting, and those that help families meet their basic needs, like SNAP, rental assistance and Medicaid, could prove costly in the long run.
A compelling and growing body of scientific research indicates that children living in unusually stressful situations (such as not having enough food to eat or living in unstable housing) may experience chronic stress levels severe enough (i.e., "toxic stress") to damage the developing neural connections in their brains, impeding their ability to succeed in school and develop the social and emotional skills they will need to function well as adults. These early adverse experiences also can undermine the body's cardiovascular and immune systems, resulting in costly health conditions in adulthood such as diabetes or heart disease.
Jack Shonkoff, a key researcher on toxic stress, and his colleagues note in a recent American Academy of Pediatrics report that the scientific research not only shows the consequences of toxic stress but also points to areas that can help lay the foundation for healthy development:
- Sound and appropriate nutrition that begins with the future mother's preconception nutritional status;
- Safe and supportive environments that provide spaces free from toxins and fear, allow active exploration without significant risk of harm, and offer support for families raising young children; and
- A stable and responsive environment of relationships that provide young children with consistent, nurturing, and protective interactions with adults to enhance their learning and help them adapt and respond to life events in a healthy way.
As Shonkoff says:
Sound health in early childhood provides a foundation for the construction of sturdy brain architecture and the achievement of a broad range of skills and learning capacities. Together these constitute the building blocks for a vital and sustainable society that invests in its human capital and values the lives of its children.
This research provides a compelling case for investing in children, especially when they are very young and their life experiences are fostering -- or hindering -- their brain development. Cutting programs that make a positive difference in children's lives will cost kids, their families, and the economy much more than it saves in the years to come.