04/24/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Poverty Starts In Childhood, Can Last A Lifetime

It may seem like common sense that someone who grows up in poverty may have trouble climbing the social ladder later in life -- but a series of studies suggests that the correlation is even more prominent than previously thought, and that the first few years of life are the most crucial.

Living one's earliest years in poverty causes "lasting changes in the brain -- from its overall structure down to the level of gene expression," according to research conducted by professors at Harvard University and the University of British Columbia.

According to the research, children who experience heightened stress and unhealthy diets early in life will perform worse on standardized testing and maintain those poor eating habits into adolescence, and frequently into adulthood.

So -- what's to be done?

Several initiatives, from public policymakers and nonprofits, aim to curb this disturbing trend. Karl Dean, the mayor of Nashville has introduced a campaign to reduce poverty in his city by 50% by the end of the decade. The most immediate change is to give low-income areas better access to grocery stores and fresh food. The hope is that if low-income families can better provide their children with healthy meals, those children will be more likely to maintain those habits into adulthood, thus improving their lifestyle and cognitive function.

New York City's Harlem Children's Zone attempts to improve the daily educational lives of underprivileged children by providing parenting workshops and social services.

NPR questioned founder Geoffrey Canada last July:

"What we're doing is not some kind of brilliant, eureka moment that we had when we figured out how to do this," Canada told host Neal Conan. "We have been talking about these issues, providing comprehensive, integrated services to poor children since I was in graduate school... So we just simply did it. We just decided that the time had come to actually put together all that the social scientists and the educators had been talking about for decades in approaching this problem."

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