Child poverty our biggest enemy

Growing up in poverty has pernicious, enduring, but preventable effects on children.

Research suggests that poverty is the single greatest threat to child wellbeing. Its negative effects endure and escalate across the entire lifespan.

It is concerning, therefore, that according to the recent report by the Expert Advisory Group on Solutions to Child Poverty, approximately 270,000 New Zealand children grow up in poverty. Maori and Pasifika children are considerably over-represented. Even more striking are findings from New Zealand longitudinal research over a seven-year period, presented by researchers Kristie Carter and Fiona Gunasekara. The annual proportion of children living in low-income households was about 27 per cent , and 7.5 per cent of the youngest children were in poverty at all points of the study. The youngest age group (0-4 years) experienced the least movement out of these circumstances.

Conclusions regarding the negative effects of poverty on children's wellbeing are supported by abundant scientific evidence from international and local research. New Zealand's longitudinal studies have contributed significantly to this body of work, tracking the life course of children born 40 years ago in Dunedin and Christchurch.

These findings show that differences between children living in poverty and their wealthier peers are consistently found with respect to cognitive skills and school success and achievement. Such educational disparities remain in adulthood, alongside poorer economic circumstances.

Mental health also suffers. Adults who grew up in poverty are more likely to have problems with substance dependence. If they remain in poverty, they are more likely to suffer from depression. The Dunedin study has also shown they have poorer physical health.

How do we explain these poor outcomes for children raised in poverty? The answer is complex but one critical factor is the chronic stress associated with poverty. The Expert Advisory Group reports that the majority of children in poverty live in unstable and often poor quality accommodation.

Because of problem debt, they have reduced access to such essential needs as clothing, heating and school-related expenses. They are more likely to be sick and to die than are children from more affluent homes. The quality of interactions between parents and their children are compromised. Compared with their more affluent peers, children living in poverty are likely to be exposed to multiple adverse experiences. A critical pathway between poverty and negative outcomes is by virtue of this exposure to stressful events early in life.

In his report to the American Academy of Pediatrics on the lifelong effects of early childhood adversity and toxic stress, researcher Jack Shonkoff highlighted two major conclusions.

First, early experiences and circumstances can have a lasting effect on the genetic predispositions that affect the developing brain and long term health. Early stress is associated with dysregulation of the immune system, as shown by recent research from the Dunedin study, and with biological indices of cumulative wear and tear on the body. Such stress places the individual at risk of diverse illnesses, including poorer cardiovascular and dental health. According to Shonkoff, we can think of chronic stress early in life as a biological signature or memory that confers risk across the lifespan, long after its time of origin. Chronic stress in the lives of the very young is therefore particularly problematic.

Second, greater exposure to adverse childhood experiences is associated with a raft of psychological and behavioural problems, including substance abuse, crime, early pregnancy, depression, and heightened distress, fear, and anxiety. The Dunedin study showed, for example, that adults who had been raised in poverty experienced higher post-traumatic stress symptoms.

We can think of the effects of poverty in terms of causal cycles of risk across the lifespan. Poverty is associated with a myriad of lost social and educational opportunities and compromised quality of life for the children who experience it and the adults they become.

The report by the Expert Advisory Group on Solutions to Child Poverty and the associated Working Papers provide a strong direction for discussion, debate, and action. Efforts directed at reducing poverty's negatively cascading effects on children, their families, and on our society, are sorely needed – especially for our youngest and most vulnerable members.

Karen Salmon is an associate professor at Victoria University's school of psychology.

The Dominion Post