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Editorial: The high toll of poverty

A new report proves a point long suspected ó that living in poverty can leave permanent scars on a child’s brain. With escalating food costs, fuel prices and foreclosures threatening to throw more families into poverty, a record number of young brains could be at risk.
The report was done for Action for Children, a statewide, nonprofit organization that advocates for the well-being of children and youth. Drawing on reputable research and statistics, it builds a strong case for action to prevent North Carolina from losing more brain power.
“Prevent” is the pivotal word. Already 19.1 percent of the state’s children are in poverty. The report is called “Child Poverty in North Carolina: A Preventable Epidemic,” and it proposes an aggressive approach to stopping this slide into mediocrity. Initiatives range from a higher minimum range to more investment in poor communities by financial institutions and the creation of government-sponsored savings accounts for poor children to help them build financial security.
Conventional wisdom holds that with a little luck and a lot of determination, anyone can succeed in the United States. But millions of the nation’s children are caught in a downward spiral far beyond their control. North Carolina’s child poverty rates surpassed the national average in 2000, and it’s stayed that way ever since. With low-wage service jobs replacing well-paying manufacturing jobs, North Carolina’s median wage, adjusted for inflation, was no higher in 2006 than in 2000, the report says. “The wages of the lowest-paid 20 percent of workers actually fell.”
So, here’s a young child’s brain in poverty: Even with the benefit of Medicaid, food stamps and free lunch programs, he is growing up in a household living on the edge. As his brain is built over time, layer by layer, it needs consistency and responsiveness in caregiver relationships to develop in a healthy way, the report says. What the child often gets, though, is a stressful home environment where tempers are short, cash is shorter and many aspects of nurturing a young child seem like a luxury. All this stifles cognitive brain development, the study says. “Living in poverty can also inhibit children’s social and emotional brain development, leading to behavioral and emotional problems, antisocial behavior, depression and problems with self-regulation and impulsivity.”
Unfortunately, that is happening on a global scale. A “silent tsunami” of sharply rising food prices is driving more than 100 million people deeper into poverty, according to the United Nation’s World Food Program.
North Carolina can’t tackle the world’s problems, but state leaders can look closely at the conditions poor N.C. children live in and find ways to get their lives on a better track. They need concrete reasons to have hope in a better future.

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