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Increasing Childhood Poverty and Hunger
Lately there have been unsettling reports about increases in children living in poverty in the U.S. For one, a recent article out of Boston features an emergency room survey that found doctors in the city are seeing more hungry and underweight young children in the emergency room than any time in more than a decade. The survey revealed a sharp increase in the percentage of families with children who reported not having enough food each month (going from 18% in 2007 to 28% in 2010), and a 58% increase in the number of severely underweight babies under the age of one. An expert in the article points out that this level of malnourishment “is similar to what is more typically seen in developing countries.” The article relays that pediatricians in other cities like Baltimore, Little Rock, and Minneapolis are also reporting increases in malnourished children.
Indeed, a recent AP article says that research by the Annie E. Casey Foundation found that child poverty increased in 38 states from 2000 to 2009—meaning 14.7 million children, 20 percent of all U.S. children, were considered poor in 2009.
All of these articles point out major consequences of childhood poverty, including sometimes permanent developmental and cognitive delays due to lack of nutrition, impairment in school achievement, and decreased productivity in adulthood. The Boston article points out that the chronic hunger many doctors are seeing “threatens to leave scores of infants and toddlers with lasting learning and developmental problems” since children’s growing brains can be severely affected by lack of nutrition. Research by the Children’s Defense Fund indicates notes that hunger and poor nutrition in children is linked to health problems and obesity later in life.
A University of Nevada researcher quoted in the AP article asserted that “What we are looking at is a cohort of kids who as they become adults may be less able to contribute to the growth of the economy. It could go on for multiple generations.”
I don’t want to be too obvious, but it seems clear that as a country we need to improve the social safety net to ensure that children have their critical needs met. Schools are serving a critical function in providing services like school-based healthcare, and meals for students that otherwise would go without. The Children’s Defense Fund report indicates that in 2010, about 20 million children qualified for and received free or reduced-price meals at school. But the current services schools provide are not enough to address the problem.
The AP article points out that “programs such as food stamps, unemployment insurance and foreclosure meditation have acted like a dam against the flood of poverty” but this critical assistance can have red tape that makes access difficult, and the funds are threatened by federal and state government budget cuts.
We’ve all heard horror stories about how the Great Depression affected our grandparents—often leaving life-long scars. The fact that many of these victims grew up in families that were solidly middle-class prior to the stock market crash is no doubt a major factor in the amount of attention brought to their plight. Let’s not ignore the poverty in the current recession, even though many of those most severely affected were poor or on the cusp of poverty to begin with. And I’m not talking trickle down economics where we hope that maybe the poor will get a cut after the rich are catered to. There are many places for federal dollars to go in the midst of our fiscal crisis, but the neediest among us need to rank as a top priority so that they can attain more—both in school and in life.