Living in poverty -- even in utero -- can lead to a lifetime of poor health, a new study by a team led by Cornell researcher Kathleen Ziol-Guest has found.
The scientists tracked people whose families lived in poverty in the year before they were born through age two. As adults, they suffered from high blood pressure and arthritis at twice the rate of people from more fortunate backgrounds. These diseases showed up at young ages in the study group. Study volunteers were being diagnosed with arthritis by age 30.
Poor health may account for the low incomes that the study revealed in the group. They had an average annual income of $21,600 and worked fewer hours annually than their peers (1,460 vs. 1,877).
The study does not identify a cause for this disturbing legacy. We know that stress has an effect on the immune system, and few things are more stressful than living in poverty. We also know that income affects nutrition, hygiene and access to health care.
Why these children suffer from a lifetime of ill health and resulting poverty isn't the most pressing question. The most pressing question is: What are we going to do about it?
Ziol-Guest shared some excellent ideas with the news organization Futurity in the excerpt below:
The study points to the importance of policies that increase financial resources available to families with young children, Ziol-Guest says. "Our findings indicate that the incomes of the most economically disadvantaged families should be of greatest concern, particularly during the years when these families have young children."
Programs like the Earned Income Tax Credit, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families and child tax credits could help boost the income of families during that critical period, Ziol-Guest says.
"Targeting these or similar programs to families with very young children may offer the largest benefit for health and well-being in later life and give us more bang for our buck in an era of rapidly rising health care costs."
A relatively small early investment will pay off for the rest of a person's life. This is an idea demonstrated by such a large volume of research that it should be accepted as an axiom. Think of the savings in health care costs and the benefits of increased economic production from people unimpaired by ill health.
More importantly, think of the kids. One in five American children lives below the poverty level. Are we really willing to let them walk into a future of life-limiting and life-threatening illness?
Henry David Thoreau said, "Every child begins the world again." That's simply not true for poor kids. There will be a few sparkling exceptions that people fond of moralizing about "bootstraps" will point to repeatedly. For most poor kids, however, the world will move along on the same bumpy path it did for their parents and grandparents. The world does not begin again for every child.
But it should.