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Citing Poverty’s Toll on Children, Pediatricians Call for Stronger Safety Net

March 10, 2016 at 2:00 PM

Pediatricians have unique insights into children’s health and development, so yesterday’s statement by the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) that “child poverty in the United States [is] unacceptable and detrimental to the health and well-being of children” that calls for increased aid to poor children and their families deserves close attention. 

The statement, and an accompanying technical report documenting poverty’s harsh toll on children, buttress the growing evidence that strong safety net policies are critical for children’s healthy development and long-term success. 

One in six U.S. children are poor, according to the Census Bureau’s Supplemental Poverty Measure.

“[W]e pediatricians see the negative impact of poverty on children every day,” AAP president Benard Dreyer explained in a letter released with the statement: 

It causes, underlies or exacerbates many of the issues affecting the health and well-being of children, including:

  • increased infant mortality;
  • low birthweight and subsequent health and developmental problems;
  • chronic disease frequency and severity;
  • food insecurity, poor nutrition and growth;
  • increased accidental injury and mortality;
  • lower immunization rates;
  • increased obesity and its complications;
  • markedly increased toxic stress and its lifelong impact;
  • problems with early brain and child development;
  • mental health problems;
  • poorer academic achievement and increased rates of high school dropout;
  • teen pregnancy and substance abuse; and
  • higher rates of teen/young adult criminal behavior and incarceration.

AAP emphasized the especially harsh effects of deep poverty for children:

Research shows that living in deep and persistent poverty can cause severe, lifelong health problems, including infant mortality, poor language development, higher rates of asthma and obesity, and an increased risk of injuries.  A growing body of research links child poverty with toxic stress that can alter gene expression and brain function and contributes to chronic cardiovascular, immune, and psychiatric disorders, as well as behavioral difficulties.

AAP called for pediatricians to support expanding state and federal anti-poverty and safety net programs, health care, early childhood education, affordable housing, home visiting programs, and nutrition support programs like WIC, SNAP (formerly food stamps), and the school lunch program. 

The group also recommended that pediatricians use well-child visits to address poverty-related problems, starting by asking families whether they have problems making ends meet at the end of the month.