This week, the U.S. Census Bureau released the 2015 numbers on income, poverty and health, showing that 21.2% of children under the age of 3 are living in families with incomes below the federal poverty level. While this is a 2.5 percentage point drop in just one year – certainly a move in the right direction – the stark reality remains that 1 in 5 babies and toddlers in America live in poverty. By any measure, the number of children starting out life already at risk for falling behind remains staggering and unacceptable.
Young children are the age group most likely to live in poverty.
What does it mean that more than one in five babies and toddlers in America live below the federal poverty line? In dollar terms, that means a family of four is living on $24,250 or less a year. As their neural connections are forming at a rate of 700 or more per second, babies in these families often live in circumstances rife with situations that place them at risk. Whether it’s lack of access to adequate nutrition, few early learning experiences, housing concerns, or other family challenges, this chronic, unrelenting stress in their lives, often called “toxic stress,” unleashes hormones that negatively impact brain development, physical and emotional health, and even immune systems in the future. Poverty has far-reaching consequences for young children.
Here in Durham, the poverty level for children birth to age 5 consistently approaches 30%, and more than 50% of young children live in low-income households. We know that the effects of poverty are most destructive in a child’s early years, and in response, the Partnership leads initiatives that address the multi-faceted effects of poverty. Early intervention and two-generation strategies that serve both parent and child create better futures for everyone. By increasing access to high-quality care for low-income children, we buffer toxic stress and promote healthy development; parents, in turn, can work or go to school. We fund evidence-based programs that address mental health and behavioral issues, help prevent child abuse and neglect, empower parents through education and support, and encourage healthy physical habits through nutrition and outdoor learning environments that combat childhood obesity.
The new Census Bureau report confirms that too many children are starting life with some level of risk that they will not reach their potential. We know that our work here in Durham is making an impact, and we also know that there is much more work to be done. Please consider how you can become more informed, involved and invested in this work!