The recession's toll on children

Source: Monitor on Psychology

Low-income children are more likely to develop cognitive deficits, undermining their chances for successful lives. New psychological interventions could help protect them.

By Amy Novotney

September 2010, Vol 41, No. 8

Excerpt from article: More than one in five American children now live in poverty, the highest rate in two decades, and one that surpasses that of most other industrialized nations, according to a June report from the nonprofit Foundation for Child Development. Since 1975, the organization has tracked children’s overall quality of life with 28 well-being indicators, including infant mortality, preschool enrollment and children’s health insurance coverage.

The foundation predicts that the number of children living in poverty will rise to 15.6 million this year, an increase of more than 3 million children in four years. As many as half a million children could become homeless this year, up from 330,000 in 2007.

Perhaps most alarming is that even though the economy is likely to recover in the next few years, a generation of disadvantaged children may not. Today’s poorer children could be haunted by the devastating effects of the recession for years to come, as they face an increased risk of engaging in violent crime and illegal drug use, and of experiencing chronic health problems such as obesity.

“Research shows that children who slip into poverty, even for a short time, suffer long-term setbacks even when their families regain their economic footing,” says psychologist Ruby Takanishi, PhD, the foundation’s president.

These setbacks are especially true for children under 10, she adds. In addition to negative health outcomes — such as a higher susceptibility to asthma, anemia and other health problems — research also shows that children raised in poverty are more likely to experience negative educational and cognitive outcomes, often as a result of less mental stimulation and increased stress in their living situations. Some research even shows that the brains of poor children may be unable to process information in the same way as the brains of kids in higher-income families.

With the economic downturn forcing more families into poverty, psychologists are using their expertise in child development and cognition to develop evidence-based early-childhood interventions to help improve the prospects for low-income children. They’re also advocating for more resources for these children, including better educational and social support, says Martha Farah, PhD, director of Center for Neuroscience and Society at the University of Pennsylvania.

“Our ultimate goal is to understand the complex web of social, psychological and physiological influences that act upon children in low-socioeconomic families and to use that understanding to help them achieve their true potential,” Farah says.

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