07/12/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Health Care and Poverty - A Vicious Cycle

For the millions of American children who are living below the poverty line, escaping the cycle can seem impossible.

Statistics show that children from poor families are more likely to drop out of school before attaining their high school diplomas -- and that individuals without a high school diploma are more likely to be poor. A recent study from the Schott Foundation shows that 7 of 10 black and brown males in major urban centers don't finish high school. They are also exponentially more likely to be incarcerated and unemployed throughout the course of their lives.

Quite simply, the odds are stacked against these young people. One of the ways to explain this crippling cycle is as follows:

When you feel better, you do better. When you feel bad, you do bad. In my anti-poverty work I have experienced the truth of this statement firsthand.

The more than 10 million adolescents who currently live in low-income families are not just denied life's little luxuries. They also are denied basic human rights, such as healthcare and nutritious food. Many of these children are unable to see a dentist because their families don't have insurance, and their parents can't take time off from work to spend the whole day waiting at the public health facility. Many of them have poor vision but do not get glasses since their families don't have insurance for vision care.

Furthermore, many of these children are malnourished, which means they are either underweight or overweight. Just because a child's bones aren't sticking out does not mean that his body is well nourished, as obesity has a myriad of health problems that can complicate a child's life. However, many families are forced to rely on cheap, unhealthy sustenance, including fast food and empty candy store calories. Healthy foods such as produce and lean meats are more expensive than fried, fatty foods, and most families don't have the option of buying the fresh food their children need to be healthy.

These are just a few of the very basic health problems that can prevent a child from excelling in school. When children's teeth ache from cavities, when their vision is too blurred to see the chalkboard, and when all they had for breakfast was a candy bar and a soda, it is no wonder that their school performance is poor and their behavior is aggressive.

We need to help the impoverished feel better so they can do better. We must work on legislative, faith-based, private and public sector solutions. Poverty is much too pernicious to fight over turf. Healthcare is just one area we must acutely address and until we do the poverty cycle will continue to ruin lives and imprison dreams.