Jeff Madrick, journalist and economic policy consultant, wrote an important post for the New York Review of Books blog about the inequalities that begin at birth.
“Pre-K is not enough…Indeed, two studies completed in 2013 relate neural deterioration directly to poverty. A group of researchers from six universities measured the brain activity of adults who had been poor at age nine and found that the areas that control emotions were physically underdeveloped. A Washington University study found that poor children who are nurtured adequately, thus avoiding constant stress, usually have normally developed brain tissue, while those with less nurturing have less white and grey matter and smaller control centers, such as the hippocampus.
“What’s been discovered is that human beings have a chemical reaction to stress that at first protects them from damage. But the defense is limited. Should a young child, whose brain is still forming, be bombarded by constant stress—from violence at home, lack of food, parental drug abuse, and, not least, chronic lack of attention or nurturing—the overloaded mechanism fails and the brain is adversely affected.”
But poverty and the stresses it causes are not inevitable, Madrick writes:
“What concerns me most, however, is that our political leaders and legislators have until now largely overlooked the connection between poverty, poor educational attainment, and even neural malfunctions—and the extent to which effective poverty reduction itself can correct the problem. Economists Janet Gornick and Markus Jantii analyzed data across nations and concluded that child poverty is far lower in European nations, not because their economy produces higher wages for lower income workers, but because of more robust social programs. Most of these nations, and many in Latin America, for example, provide direct cash allowances for parents with children.
“More and better paying jobs are vital to combating child poverty and the problems it leads to. A full employment economy, with good jobs, is still possible with substantial fiscal stimulus, especially including public investment in infrastructure.
“But social programs are critical. Contrary to the widespread cynicism about social programs and welfare, the US knows how to reduce poverty. As Robert Greenstein of the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities notes, the federal safety net, including Medicaid, Food Stamps, the Earned Income Tax Credit, and the Child Tax Credit, kept 41 million people out of poverty in 2012, including 9 million children. Without government benefits, today’s poverty rate would be 29 percent. Instead, using the best measures of poverty, which include government transfers and tax credits, the rate has dropped from about 26 percent in the late 1960s to 16 percent today. In other words, the War on Poverty begun in the 1960s worked.”
And he concludes:
“Armed with the unambiguous findings of twenty-first-century neuroscience, we can no longer just tell children raised poor to study harder and find jobs as they grow up. A nation that needs all its citizens to be productive workers, and that promises a fair and dignified life to all, regardless of race or color, must now turn its attention to its enormous pool of poor children.”