Poverty harms people in many ways. It affects children’s and adolescents’ development, puts stresses on families that result in increased conflict, affects parent and child health, and undermines cooperation among neighbors in high poverty neighborhoods. Poor children are much more likely to grow up to be poor adults and to raise children who have the same problems they had.
Over the past thirty years the evidence of how harmful poverty can be has mounted. That is why the recent report from the Institute of Medicine on prevention called for increased efforts to reduce poverty and to prevent poverty from standing in the way of poor children developing the skills the need to get out of poverty.
The Institute of Medicine report and much other evidence shows that it is possible to help young people escape from poverty. The recent success of the Harlem Children's Zone is one example of what can be accomplished. This website describes numerous programs, policies, and practices can help families, schools, neighborhoods and communities make sure that children succeed.
Poverty per se is not what effects early development; poverty affects choices that adults can manage to help their children. For example, if a mom has little access to fresh, wholesome foods, the baby or toddler is likely to get too much omega-6 fatty acid (in corn, cottonseed, soybean oils, etc.) and not enough omega-3 (in fish, in certain green vegetables, fortified eggs, grass fed meats, etc.). This can significantly impact a child’s intelligence and behavior. Perceived discrimination associated with poverty because of race, ethnicity, etc. raises stress hormones of the adults, which makes them less attentive to children and even harsh toward children. If the neighborhood is plagued by violence, the perceived stress of that “turns on” all sorts of evolutionary genes in the adults, in fetuses, in children and adolescents.