Childhood Poverty Can Have Lifelong Effects

Panama City Beach – Children who are born into poverty often experience “toxic stress” that can have lifelong effects, said Zach Jenkins, director of the University of West Florida Haas Center.

Speaking at the Gulf Power Symposium that was held Oct.3-4 at the Sheraton Bay Resort in Panama City Beach, Jenkins gave a presentation called “Regional Reality Check” that outlined economic and social conditions in Northwest Florida using median household income, educational and employment data.

Speaker at the 2016 Gulf Power Symposium in Panama City.
Zach Jenkins, director of the UWF Haas Center. Photo: Gulf Power.

One in five children, both nationally and in the region, live below the poverty line, which for a household of four is about $24,000.

Children who live in poverty can experience an unhealthy amount of stress because of a number of factors, such as living in an area with crime, having poor health and lacking access to healthcare.

That constant state of stress can create pathways in the child’s brain that shouldn’t be there. They affect how the child deals with adversity, Jenkins said.

“They function differently; they process things differently,” Jenkins said. “It affects their behavior.”

Stress can even be passed onto children before they are born, which can result in low birth weights.

“The correlation and the relationship between the mother’s health and the infant’s birth weight is striking,” Jenkins said. “There’s tons of research that talks about how the mother’s health relates directly to the birth weight of the child and the child’s health.”

Children with low birth weight can develop chronic health conditions, which can keep them out of school and constantly falling behind.

“When you fall behind, if you don’t have the support system in place, you don’t catch up,” Jenkins said. “You fall behind, and you keep falling behind … In turn, those children who attain a low education, (and have) poor health become adults who have a lower social status and lower earnings.”

Of those children born into poverty, 50 percent will remain “persistently poor” throughout their childhood, Jenkin said.

That number varies across racial lines. Jenkins said 67 percent of children of African-American children who are born into poverty will remain poor for their entire childhood, while only one-third of white children who are born into poor households will remain poor throughout their childhood.

The high-school dropout rate for those who were born into poverty is 10 times greater than that of those who are not born poor, Jenkins said.

About $620 billion is being spent nationally to combat childhood poverty, Jenkins said.

While the loss of economic production caused by childhood poverty can be measured, the potential talent and skills lost cannot, Jenkins said.

“We don’t know what these children would have been capable of,” he said. “There’s lots of talent that we never know what could have been.”