A series of articles
December 20, 2007
New York Times
NEWARK — The numbers bear out the conventional wisdom that growing up in New Jersey’s largest city can be rough. Each week, the authorities remove an average of 33 children from their homes because of abuse and neglect. Every month, about 150 teenagers are infected with a sexually transmitted disease. One-third of all children here live in poverty.
But amid the grim litany of statistics released on Wednesday by the Association for Children of New Jersey, a children’s advocacy group, there was a handful of encouraging surprises. More young adults are enrolling in college, infant mortality fell 40 percent from 2000 to 2004 and the number of children finding themselves in handcuffs has dropped 27 percent since 2002.
To the authors of the report, “Newark Kids Count 2007,” the most unexpected finding was that juveniles in Newark are no more likely to be arrested for violent crime than youths in surrounding Essex County, which includes wealthy suburbs, or in New Jersey as a whole.
Considering Newark’s reputation for lawlessness — and the national attention it received last summer when four teenagers and two adults were charged with killing three students on a playground. Cecilia Zalkind, the organization’s executive director, said she found such statistics refreshingly counterintuitive.
“This data shows we’re on the right track,” said Ms. Zalkind, whose organization has been issuing an annual scorecard for Newark since 1993.
But during a news conference on Wednesday, the association made it clear that Newark still faces sobering challenges. Although juvenile arrests on all charges have been dropping in recent years, the number of youths apprehended on drug charges jumped 66 percent in 2006, while the number found with weapons did not drop, a signs, officials said, that gang activity had an increasingly pernicious grip on teenagers here.
In a trend reflected in cities nationwide, a growing number of young adults are drifting into gangs; the Newark Police Department, for example, has compiled a list of 3,600 suspected gang members, most of them under 25, and during the past year, arrests of teenagers for violent offenses jumped 11 percent compared with 2006. “There is plenty of cause for concern,” Ms. Zalkind said.
Even the overall decline in juvenile arrests does not necessarily reflect a seismic drop in teenage crime. The report points out that there has been an 8 percent drop in the city’s child population in recent years and that the police have stopped arresting youths for fights that do not involve weapons, a policy change that may be reducing arrest figures. (The hope behind that policy, city officials said, was to shield young people from the potentially ruinous effects of the criminal justice system, especially when it involves minor incidents.)
Behind every bright statistic, it seemed, was a reason for continued hand-wringing. The association found, for example, that the child-poverty rate in Newark has been dropping significantly in recent years — 40 percent since 2002 — while incomes were rising. But celebrating such gains is hard when the median household income, of $34,500, is half the state average — in one of the nation’s most expensive regions.
Mayor Cory A. Booker welcomed the findings, saying the statistics were a useful benchmark for measuring the failures and successes of his administration. He pointed out that during his first year in office, the city had drastically increased the child immunization rate to 75 percent, from 58 percent in 2001, an accomplishment that recently earned the city a commendation from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
But he said that he was especially dismayed by figures showing that a third of Newark’s adult residents do not have high school diplomas and that fewer than 12 percent attended college. “Our dropout rates are incredibly high,” Mr. Booker said. “These children lose the opportunity to fully participate in a knowledge-based global economy.”
The mayor recounted an encounter he had early this week with three teenagers who were walking the streets about 11 p.m. The three boys told him they were no longer in school and when pushed, admitted having no plans for the future. Mr. Booker found the encounter troubling. “It’s not O.K. for children to be walking around at night,” he said. “They have to be confronted.” He added: “They were not bad kids, but they had fallen through the cracks. We have to show that this is a city that truly loves its children.”
February 18, 2008
New York Times
“Poverty in early childhood poisons the brain.” That was the opening of an article in Saturday’s Financial Times, summarizing research presented last week at the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
As the article explained, neuroscientists have found that “many children growing up in very poor families with low social status experience unhealthy levels of stress hormones, which impair their neural development.” The effect is to impair language development and memory — and hence the ability to escape poverty — for the rest of the child’s life.
So now we have another, even more compelling reason to be ashamed about America’s record of failing to fight poverty.
L. B. J. declared his “War on Poverty” 44 years ago. Contrary to cynical legend, there actually was a large reduction in poverty over the next few years, especially among children, who saw their poverty rate fall from 23 percent in 1963 to 14 percent in 1969.
But progress stalled thereafter: American politics shifted to the right, attention shifted from the suffering of the poor to the alleged abuses of welfare queens driving Cadillacs, and the fight against poverty was largely abandoned.
In 2006, 17.4 percent of children in America lived below the poverty line, substantially more than in 1969. And even this measure probably understates the true depth of many children’s misery.
Living in or near poverty has always been a form of exile, of being cut off from the larger society. But the distance between the poor and the rest of us is much greater than it was 40 years ago, because most American incomes have risen in real terms while the official poverty line has not. To be poor in America today, even more than in the past, is to be an outcast in your own country. And that, the neuroscientists tell us, is what poisons a child’s brain.
America’s failure to make progress in reducing poverty, especially among children, should provoke a lot of soul-searching. Unfortunately, what it often seems to provoke instead is great creativity in making excuses.
Some of these excuses take the form of assertions that America’s poor really aren’t all that poor — a claim that always has me wondering whether those making it watched any TV during Hurricane Katrina, or for that matter have ever looked around them while visiting a major American city.
Mainly, however, excuses for poverty involve the assertion that the United States is a land of opportunity, a place where people can start out poor, work hard and become rich.
But the fact of the matter is that Horatio Alger stories are rare, and stories of people trapped by their parents’ poverty are all too common. According to one recent estimate, American children born to parents in the bottom fourth of the income distribution have almost a 50 percent chance of staying there — and almost a two-thirds chance of remaining stuck if they’re black.
That’s not surprising. Growing up in poverty puts you at a disadvantage at every step.
I’d bracket those new studies on brain development in early childhood with a study from the National Center for Education Statistics, which tracked a group of students who were in eighth grade in 1988. The study found, roughly speaking, that in modern America parental status trumps ability: students who did very well on a standardized test but came from low-status families were slightly less likely to get through college than students who tested poorly but had well-off parents.
None of this is inevitable.
Poverty rates are much lower in most European countries than in the United States, mainly because of government programs that help the poor and unlucky.
And governments that set their minds to it can reduce poverty. In Britain, the Labor government that came into office in 1997 made reducing poverty a priority — and despite some setbacks, its program of income subsidies and other aid has achieved a great deal. Child poverty, in particular, has been cut in half by the measure that corresponds most closely to the U.S. definition.
At the moment it’s hard to imagine anything comparable happening in this country. To their credit — and to the credit of John Edwards, who goaded them into it — both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama are proposing new initiatives against poverty. But their proposals are modest in scope and far from central to their campaigns.
I’m not blaming them for that; if a progressive wins this election, it will be by promising to ease the anxiety of the middle class rather than aiding the poor. And for a variety of reasons, health care, not poverty, should be the first priority of a Democratic administration.
But ultimately, let’s hope that the nation turns back to the task it abandoned — that of ending the poverty that still poisons so many American lives.
Poverty mars formation of infant brains
By Clive Cookson in Boston
February 16 2008
The Financial Times (London)
Poverty in early childhood poisons the brain, the American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting in Boston heard on Friday.
Neuroscientists said many children growing up in very poor families with low social status experience unhealthy levels of stress hormones, which impair their neural development. That effect is on top of any damage caused by inadequate nutrition and exposure to environmental toxins.
Studies by several US universities have revealed the pervasive harm done to the brain, particularly between the ages of six months and three years, from low socio-economic status.
Martha Farah, director of the University of Pennsylvania’s centre for cognitive neuroscience, said: “The biggest effects are on language and memory. The finding about memory impairment – the ability to encounter a pattern and remember it – really surprised us.”
Jack Shonkoff, director of Harvard University’s centre on the developing child, said policymakers had to take note of the research because “the foundation of all social problems later in life takes place in the early years”.
“The earlier you intervene [to counteract the impact of poverty], the better the outcome in the end, because the brain loses its plasticity [adaptability] as the child becomes older,” he said.
Stress hormone levels tend to be higher in young children from poor families than in children growing up in middle-class and wealthy families, said Prof Shonkoff. Excessive levels of these hormones disrupt the formation of synaptic connections between cells in the developing brain – and even affect its blood supply. “They literally disrupt the brain architecture,” he said.
The findings explain why relatively unfocused programmes to prepare poor children for school, such as Head Start in the US, have produced only modest results, the scientists said.
More focused interventions could give more substantial benefits, said Courtney Stevens of the University of Oregon. She gave the preliminary results of an eight-week programme aimed at poor parents of pre-school children in Oregon.
Parents attended weekly coaching sessions to improve their family communications skills and show them how to control their children’s bad behaviour. At the end of the programme, participating parents reported big reductions in family stress compared with a control group that did not take part. Brain scans of the children suggested neural improvements, too.
“Our findings are important because they suggest that kids who are at high risk for school failure can be helped through these interventions,” said Dr Stevens. “Even with these small numbers of children, the parent training appears very promising.”
Well-tailored programmes can help, Prof Shonkoff agreed. But in the end, the only way to remove the “toxic” impact of poverty on young brains is to abolish poverty itself, he said.