08/26/2010 01:20 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Mothers Of Infants In Poverty More Likely To Suffer Depression

More than half of all nine-month-old babies growing up in poverty are being raised by mothers suffering some form of depression, according to a new study from the Urban Institute. Eleven percent of infants in poverty are being raised by mothers suffering severe depression, compared with 7 percent of all infants.

"Depression can compromise a parent's ability to provide consistent care in a safe environment. Evidence suggests that depression can interfere with parenting, leading to poor social development and problems with physical, psychological, behavioral, and mental health in children," says the report, the first of its kind. "What makes the harm to children and their parents so distressing is that depression is usually treatable -- and thus the damage to children is preventable."

The government reported last fall that the poverty rate had risen to 13.2 percent in 2008 from 12.5 percent in 2007. It's the highest poverty rate in 11 years. (For 2009 the Census Bureau considers a family of four with an annual income of less than $21,756 to be in poverty.) In 2008, 39.8 million people were in poverty, up from 37.3 million in 2007.

The Urban Institute report's authors flag a bright spot: Most of the mothers suffering severe depression have connected with government programs that could be used as intervention points, such as the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (formerly known as food stamps), and the the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children.

"We're missing an opportunity to intervene and address a very big risk factor," said Olivia Golden, who co-authored the report with two colleagues. "Only 30 percent of the severely depressed mothers say they've spoken to a counselor about this."

But 96 percent of infants with severely depressed mothers lived with someone who received WIC benefits. The Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy says the program reaches nine million women, infants, and children every month.

The stimulus bill of 2009 provided $5 billion in extra funding for TANF, $20 billion in increased funding for SNAP, and $500 million for WIC. The Senate has refused opportunities to reauthorize the TANF funding and recently voted to curtail the extra SNAP funding, potentially leading to an unprecedented month-to-month decrease in money for families to buy food. The WIC funding, which has been underutilized, so far is not on any chopping blocks.

The report does not illustrate how the recession has affected new mothers in poverty, but presumably state budget cuts aren't helping. "I'd worry about mental health treatment to the extent that it depended on networks of clinics that had state funding," said Golden.