Children & Poverty

January 1, 2021
Other Publication

It is an epic tragedy that in the capital of the richest country in the world, in the shadow of the White House and the U.S. Capitol dome, young children are living in poverty. Nearly one in three children in Washington, D.C. lived in families whose income was below the poverty line in 2009, about twice the national average (National Center for Children in Poverty, 2008), and every indication is that poverty across the District is on the rise (DC Fiscal Policy Institute, 2010).

Despite the vast safety net, too many low-income children in the District do not have the benefit of nurturing or even safe home environments and often lack access to high-quality early care and education. They live in communities where unemployment, teenage pregnancy, drugs and gang violence are the norm.

As if these conditions weren’t horrible enough, we must also reckon with the grim fact that some of our most vulnerable children are hungry, abused or alone.

It’s not surprising that young children growing up poor confront a much greater variety, and intensity, of stresses on a daily basis than their more affluent peers. Research shows that this “toxic stress” can build up in even the youngest children, causing potentially long-term damage in the developing brain (National Scientific Council on the Developing Child, 2005).

Indeed poverty affects how children learn. Low-income children may have more limited vocabularies, are read to less often and live in homes with fewer books. Without access to educational activities and resources before kindergarten, they often fall further behind their peers once they are in school.

Before entering kindergarten, the average cognitive score of preschool-age children in the highest socioeconomic group is 60 percent above the average score of children in the lowest socioeconomic group.

By age 4, children who live below the poverty line are 18 months behind what is normal for their age group—a gap that remains through at least age 10, and often far beyond. And that gap is even larger for children living in the poorest families. (National Center for Children in Poverty, 2007).

This devastating achievement gap demands our attention. Together we can break the cycle of poverty that affects children, families and communities for generations.