Spotlight Exclusives

For Medical Community, the Disease of Childhood Poverty has become a Front and Center Issue

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In recent months, doctors and medical organizations have begun examining disease through a special lens childhood poverty. In a recent blog post in The New York Times, Dr. Perri Klass explained it this way: “Think for a moment of poverty as a disease, thwarting growth and development, robbing children of the healthy, happy futures they might otherwise expect.”


Childhood poverty, in particular, has been staked out as a high-priority issue because it underlies many of the health and developmental problems children face.


In February, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) voted to make “Poverty and Child Health” their new strategic priority. In April, the Academic Pediatric Association (APA) released a strategic road map for their newly-formed APA Task Force on Childhood Poverty. And in May, a plenary session titled “A National Agenda to End Childhood Poverty” was featured at the Pediatric Academic Societies۪ (PAS) annual meeting.


The APA Task Force notes that one in five children live below the official federal poverty line. In fact, poverty rates for children are higher than the rates for any other age group. In 2010, while children made up 24 percent of the U.S. population, they accounted for 35 percent of people with income below 100 percent of poverty.


The APA strategic road map makes poverty a major part of its agenda to address children۪s health and wellbeing. The road map recognizes that while national pediatric organizations advocate for individual programs related to childhood poverty such as Medicaid and Child Health Plus, there is “no sustained focus on childhood poverty itself, which underlies many of the ills of children, and which needs to be addressed in a comprehensive manner.”


In fact, childhood experiences with poverty, violence, and other major adversity increase the odds that those individuals will suffer from hypertension, heart disease, various forms of cancer, depression, alcoholism, or substance abuse. The psychological and health effects of childhood poverty can change children۪s life trajectories and may trap them in intergenerational poverty.


“Poor children have increased infant mortality, higher rates of low birth weight and subsequent health and developmental problems, increased frequency and severity of chronic diseases such as asthma, greater food insecurity with poorer nutrition and growth, poorer access to quality health care, increased unintentional injury and mortality, poorer oral health, lower immunization rates, and increased rates of obesity and its complications. There is also increasing evidence that poverty in childhood creates a significant health burden in adulthood,” stated the APA Task Force road map.


During the Boston Children۪s Museum۪s Early Childhood Summit in April, Dr. Jack Shonkoff gave a presentation on how early childhood experiences build the adult brain architecture. When children in their first three years of life experience risk factors such as abuse, neglect, exposure to violence and substance abuse, low parental education, and low income, they are likely to be developmentally impaired. In fact, 90-100 percent of three-year-olds who are exposed to more than seven risk factors fail standardized developmental tests, Shonkoff said, setting them up for failure in school. This message is being delivered directly to the professionals who study and work on poverty issues through events such as the 2013 Welfare Research and Evaluation Conference, at which Shonkoff gave the keynote address.


The medical community۪s recent engagements are intended to unite experts and practitioners around the goal of ending childhood poverty. In fact, the APA Task Force explicitly aims to create a consistent and unified pediatric voice that does not “trigger partisan and non-productive responses.” These efforts promote the vision of ending child poverty as one that should unite, rather than divide, groups towards action.


Posted by Lily


Here at Out of the Spotlight, we offer a behind-the-scenes look at the latest news and information essential to anyone working to fight poverty. From key political appointees to clashes over policy, we cover the news that doesn’t always make the evening news. Check out Out of the Spotlight for our take on the twists and turns of the latest political developments and their impact on poverty reduction. Topics and ideas are welcome! Just contact or

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