We rarely think of poverty as a disease. It doesn’t trace back to a microbe, it doesn’t transmit through coughs or sneezes. But for children, the effects of poverty can have lifelong implications as devastating as many diseases.
As author Perri Klass, MD, noted recently in The New York Times, the stress and limitations that often accompany childhood poverty can influence children’s life trajectories, change their dispositions, blunt their brain development, and even alter their genes.
Today we’re in the midst of a poverty epidemic not seen since the Depression. We have more kids living in poverty now than we have had for generations. That’s scary, especially now that we know what poverty does to you neurologically, biologically, and socially. A child’s early development has huge implications on health for when that child is 20 years old, or even 30, 40, or 50 years old.
So what can we do about it? To start, we need to look holistically at who is around to support a child. Who is giving care to make sure a child can, as Klass puts it, “grow toward the light”? As a society, we need to ask how we can make sure families have the supports they need to give the best care to their child, even as they face the trials of poverty.
Support for lifting children and families out of poverty often gets wrapped up in asking who’s accountable for the situation, or the politics around a handout versus picking yourself up from your bootstraps. The conversation—and action—could get further if we set aside these polarizations and approached the problem, instead, as an early childhood disease. There’s a huge need for that conversation to happen. We all have a stake in this. It’s costly to pay for poor health outcomes that we know stem from trauma and adversity early in life. Whether you care from an economic perspective or you care from a moral one, recognizing poverty as a childhood disease is imperative to the future wellbeing and productivity of our society.