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Jodie Levin-Epstein

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New Record Poverty? Make Kids' Brains "Too Big to Fail"

Posted: 09/16/10 12:04 PM ET

In 2009, the number of those officially poor is the highest ever recorded -- a total of 43.6 million according to the Census Bureau data released September 16th. That includes 3.7 million of us who became poor just in 2009, reflecting a 1.1 percent jump from 2008. These numbers may get a yawn from some analysts since the metrics are readily explicable: The Great Recession built up poverty and as it ebbs, so too, will the rate.

Any comfort is likely taken without knowledge of two important discoveries about poverty. First, even short-term poverty driven by recession can scar families and hurt the future employment prospects and health outcomes of children. Second, when poverty is experienced throughout childhood it causes brain circuitry problems, making ordinary tasks hard to get done.

For a family of four, the poverty line equals an annual income of $22,050. Official poverty, however, does not include the millions more who live on the edge. These families also often daily deal with the repercussions of financial stress.

The Great Recession is expected to generate a stubbornly high unemployment rate lasting at least three more years. Currently, about half of those unemployed are out of work for more than six months -- a record number. A recession can harm the present and future of poor children in several ways: children who experience poverty or parental job loss often have more difficulty succeeding in school and earn less as adults; for youth, unemployment during a recession can permanently impair future employment and earnings growth; and children who fall into poverty are more likely to have poor health as adults than their counterparts.

New neurocognitive and biological research also shows that the longer a child lives in poverty the more harm is done to a brain function called "working memory." That means it gets harder to retain vocabulary or remember how two numbers add up. It's the chronic stress of living in poverty that's the culprit. This is no ordinary stress but the kind that comes from persistent environmental demands that impose biological wear and tear. The result is young adults with working memory deficits. Researchers believe this partially explains why the income-achievement gap is so tenacious.

Further, brain imagery research has examined "executive function," the ability to plan and focus. Children were instructed to ignore some sounds and focus on others. In contrast to higher income children, the brains of the poor children were more active and seemed to pay attention equally to all sound tones, even those they were instructed to ignore. This may be due to children adapting to chaotic environments in which every sound could signal trouble. With a diminished executive function, it's hard not just to manage Pre-K but also to succeed at job training.

These research discoveries should give policy-makers a new lens on the ramifications of poverty whether it is caused by a recession or is chronic. There are strategies for addressing each. Most urgently, Congress and states can tackle recession-driven poverty by creating jobs. States have used the TANF Emergency Fund to create more than 240,000 jobs, but this program will end on September 30th unless Congress acts. The pending Keep Americans Working Act would foster work-sharing, a program where employers, instead of imposing lay-offs, allow employees to tap unemployment insurance while working fewer hours.
More states need to replicate innovations that improve "shock-absorber" programs, which protect families against the recession's economic potholes. Automatic cross-enrollment in programs such as food stamps, Medicaid, and school lunch is key. These programs, along with TANF cash assistance, mitigate immediate hardship, and can help families and vulnerable children avoid the deep shocks of poverty.

Our government came to the rescue when "too big to fail" financial institutions were on the brink and we worried about economic collapse. Our children fuel the future economic engine. We now know too many will grow up with brains that misfire. Yet, we expect each of them to pull themselves up by their bootstraps and become productive citizens. For all our children to meet that responsibility we should view our kids' brains as "too big to fail," and invest accordingly both immediately and for the long-term.