The Lifelong Health Consequences of Experiencing Poverty During Childhood
“Did you grow up thinking that you were poor?” I asked her, notepad in hand. The middle-aged women glanced down quietly at her dry calloused hands, then looked up thoughtfully. “5 kids growing up sharing one room in a two-bedroom house wasn’t poverty to me, it was what I knew. I never grew up thinking I was really poor, because after all my house had wood floors.” I paused mid pencil scribble, waiting for an explanation. She continued “My cousins grew up in a house with dirt floors. My family had wood floors in our house… so I always knew we were poor, but I also always knew it could be worse.”
Socioeconomic status, low levels of education, and low paying jobs or unemployment, are often used as descriptions of poverty, however they are at best, consequences of poverty. Poverty does more than restrict an individual to government funded housing and food programs, it can negatively influence one’s relationship with quality healthcare, before that individual is even born. For each individual, the propensity for a certain quality of life begins in the womb. Pregnant women who live in impoverished communities are prone to have serious obstacles when it comes to receiving much needed prenatal healthcare services both for themselves and the healthy development of their unborn child. It seems that even before taking ones first breath, a child coming into an impoverished situation has already been unfairly predisposed to a pleather of healthcare issues. From birth, to the early years, many other trials induced by poverty will affect the child’s quality of health into adulthood. After being born, the child is highly likely to experience something known as toxic levels of stress, as well as face many educational obstacles as consequences of unmet basic healthcare needs. It is difficult for healthcare professionals and communities to come together and fight for better healthcare outcomes for children born and living in poverty, if healthcare professionals and communities do not understand the severe lifelong health consequences of these circumstances.
Poverty has often been referred to as a vicious cycle, and the statistics of an unwed mother can illustrate this. A report from the U.S. Census Bureau share some alarming statistics, including “62% of new moms in their early 20s are unmarried… In families with incomes of less than $10,000, that number goes up to 69%. – nearly 30% of [single mom] families live under the poverty line.” With poverty, there are often increased incidences of depression, substance abuse, criminal activity, and unstable or environmentally unhealthy living conditions. It is highly likely that a pregnant woman living in poverty, will be facing one or more of these issues either personally, or with someone she is close to. Not only are there financial obstacles to quality prenatal care, but the added chronic stress of the situations mentioned above, will likely cause permanent lifelong physical issues in the woman’s unborn child. A study conducted by the researchers at University of Zurich explains that when a mother experiences chronic stress throughout her pregnancy, her stress hormones will rise to a level that is unhealthy for the unborn child, eventually raising the concentration of her stress hormones in the amniotic fluid. Further research being done on the matter has found that this raises the likelihood for the unborn child to be diagnosed with ADD (Attention Deficit Disorder), or even heart disease in their adult life. Before breathing their first breath, the horrible truth is that children born into impoverished situations have already been put at an extreme disadvantage to be able to live and maintain a healthy life.
After birth, the babies first five crucial years of life begin. The traditionally happy moments in these early stages of development, will be mixed with obstacles unique to children living in poverty. It is important to understand that while stress is part of life, and everyone will experience it, there are both physically and mentally tolerable and intolerable levels of stress. Harvard University conduced a pediatric study on what Toxic Stress is and how it affects children. Toxic stress response is a condition that occurs in children who have been in chronic negative situations. These situations do not occur exclusively in impoverished communities; however, the frequency and intensity of these situations have been well known and acknowledged as consequences of poverty. Some of these highly toxic stressful situations include physical or emotional abuse, neglect from caregivers, the child witnessing or having knowledge of substance abuse and mental illness in their caregiver(s), chronic exposure to violence, as well as chronic exposure to “grown up issues” such as severe financial and economic hardships. The study explains that chronic exposure to these high stress situations throughout childhood will affect an individual’s quality of health both in the present and well into their adult life. The type of disruptions in one’s body that toxic stress can cause, includes but is not limited to disruption in brain and organ system development, cognitive impairment, and an increased risk for conditions such as diabetes, depression, heart disease, and substance abuse. (Center on the Developing Child, Harvard University, 2019). The impoverished child who has already been born at a disadvantage if prenatal health services were not received, is now being put at risk for future severe diseases in their adult life, due to constant situations which will trigger toxic stress response.
Many people consider the main dangers of poverty to be unclean living conditions of those in ghetto or poor rural areas. The danger of carrying on with this inaccurate perspective is that it leads to the notion that people in poverty can just work or move their way out of a horrible situation. However, the issues of poverty go beyond unclean living conditions, although that is a factor. One can hope to get a decent education in their elementary through high school years, and eventually go off to college and break the cycle of poverty, so to speak. However, even this seemingly sensible and fail proof plan, is riddled with unexpected obstacles along every step of the way. For example, a young boy growing up in Arkoma, Oklahoma, may be evaluated by a doctor and told that he needs glasses. However, if the child’s family cannot afford to purchase quality glasses, then he will have the added challenge of not being able to see educational material clearly at school. He may also have headaches and feel embarrassed that he is not keeping up with his classmates, thus eventually withdrawing himself socially from school learning activities. What seems like an easy fix, if gone uncorrected, can end up affecting this child for the rest of his life. Not only has he fallen behind his peers in learning grade appropriate educational material, but he may have further damaged his eyesight by physically straining his eyes to see the content clearly.
It is imperative to recognize that poverty goes beyond location. Rather, it is a state of being that, from the moment of conception, brings forth a pleather of obstacles for the innocent children being born into these situations. A pregnant woman living in poverty will most likely not have the same affordable access to quality healthcare during the prenatal stages, thus putting her unborn child at an increased risk for several undesirable health conditions or diseases throughout their developmental years and adult life. Another way in which poverty will affect the health of a child long term, is by exposing that child to chronic levels of toxic stress. Toxic stress response triggers the release of stress hormones at constant and unhealthy rates which will predispose the impoverished child to both mental and physical health issue, some of these including depression, substance abuse, and even heart disease in adulthood. These conditions are very serious and can often be deadly. While education may seem like the answer to break the cycle of poverty, obstacles such as insufficient funds for purchasing eye glasses for the school age child or regular check-up doctor and dental appointments, will inevitably affect not only self-esteem, but the educational skills as well as quality of health in the child as they venture into their adult life. One writer, Eli Khamarov, described the cruel tragedy of childhood poverty very accurately, when he penned the following “Poverty is like punishment for a crime you didn’t commit.” The toxicity of being born into and growing up poor will unavoidably introduce more lifelong health challenges to an individual long after childhood and long after that person has left an impoverished community. Coming into this world poor is not a crime, and thus no child should be forced to serve a lifelong sentence of health issues and complications due to being born into impoverished circumstances beyond that individual’s control.
My Safe Harbor. “U.S. Single Parent Households.” U.S. census bureau report (2009-2011).
Science Daily. “To much stress for the mother affects the baby through amniotic fluid.” University of Zurich (May 29, 2017).
Center on the Developing Child. “Toxic Stress.” Harvard University (2019). https://developingchild.harvard.edu/science/key-concepts/toxic-stress/