Poverty as a Childhood Disease: A View from Wisconsin

Recently, Perri Klass, M.D. wrote an article on the New York Times blog titled “Poverty as a Childhood Disease”. Dr. Klass shared that at the annual meeting of the Pediatric Academic Societies, there was a new call for pediatricians to address childhood poverty as a national problem, rather than wrestling with its consequences case-by-case in the exam room. To further Dr. Klass’s discussion, WECA board member Dipesh Navsaria, MPH, MSLIS, MD wrote the following blog post.

“Poverty is neurotoxic.”  Yes, those words should make you sit up and take notice.  I’ve been saying them for about a year now.  It’s a conclusion I’ve come to after seeing the dramatic studies which show substantial deficits in learning among children who have experienced adversity early on in their lives — and with few or no strong, supportive relationships to buffer the effects of that adversity.  I am proud to be part of both the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Academic Pediatric Association, who are calling attention to the concept of poverty as a childhood disease.

Dipesh Navsaria, MD

WECA Board Member, Dipesh Navsaria, M.D.explains the importance of early childhood education on brain development.

I’ve seen this as a problem throughout many areas of Wisconsin.  I’ve noticed it in Native American populations when I’ve worked with them.  I saw it in the hospital as a physician-in-training.  And in my clinical practice at Access Community Health Center in South Madison, I evaluate many children for “school issues” or “behavior problems”.  They are rarely straightforward cases. When I “go digging” in their histories, I find that early exposure to adversity has left a legacy we don’t want children to have: lifelong impairment in learning, thinking, and emotional skills.  Even worse, if we examine the data, we find that traditional medical illnesses also may have significant roots in these issues.

In a staggeringly large study in the mid-1990s, we found that multiple adverse events as a child led to three times the risk of heart disease fifty years later, as an adult.  Even more stunningly, this was not a study of a typically underprivileged, “at-risk” population, but of largely college-educated, upper-middle class adults.  Adversity “bakes into the biology” changes which play out in physical health decades later.  These studies have been repeated (with similar results), and there is even one looking specifically only at Wisconsin.

Given the magnitude of the task before us, what, realistically, can we do?  While we work towards a goal of reducing the root causes of adversity, we can implement protective interventions which buffer against the harmful effects of poverty.  In my world, we support clinics in setting up Reach Out and Read, an early literacy intervention which makes the advice to share books together a standard part of every well-child checkup, because we know that helps strengthen parental bonds with the child and establishes a routine which primes a child to be ready to learn.

What about early childhood education?  Well-prepared child care providers are also a part of that relationship system which buffers young minds against adversity.  When a child has a consistent, dedicated, educated child care provider, they have the benefits of a protective relationship.  They gain the advantage of a responsive adult, of language stimulation, and of early learning.  Child care providers are not merely “looking after” a child — they are participating in nurturing a child for many, many hours, and can have a profound impact.  Home visiting programs can assist families with challenges in practical matters such as food and housing, as well as with relationship-building actions, such as interactional play, dialogic reading, and more.

Early experiences matter.  We’ve known this for a long time, and now the biology backs us up.  It’s time for policy to follow.

More Resources:

Early Brain and Child Development – American Academy of Pediatrics

The Harvard Center for the Developing Child

Reach Out and Read:  National Center and Wisconsin

About the Author:

Dipesh Navsaria, MPH, MSLIS, MD, WECA Board Member

Facebook: facebook.com/DrLibrarian

Twitter: @navsaria

4 thoughts on “Poverty as a Childhood Disease: A View from Wisconsin

  1. When the parent experiences constant stress (such as a constant poverty struggle) it will have a negative impact on the child. As a society we are moving
    in the wrong direction when we move toward slashing Food Stamps, WIC, low-income housing, childcare assistance, access to affordable healthcare and all the supports the low-income family relies on to make it these days; it is especially hard on single-parent homes. Politics DO matter!

  2. As the number of children living in poverty in Wisconsin seems to be increasing each year we have to pay attention to this. I agree with Carla that we are heading in the wrong direction in the way we are currently reducing supports to children and families. We all have to see services like food stamps and childcare assistance as critical to the future of our state. Without adequate rest, food and physical activity children can not get “ready for school”.

  3. Widespread understanding and recognition of childhood poverty (compounded by cuts to critical funding for support programs and other risk factors) as an insurmountable deficit that will ultimately cause great societal harm is not just moral but also critical to our future in the global economy.

    You can get involved by learning more about what is happening in your community, Most areas of the state have groups that meet regularly around
    addressing these concerns. They are referred to as Continuum’s of Care and are supported through grants from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. You can find the group that represents your area at the following web links:


    Click to access BOSCOC_CONTACT_LIST_-_Updated_7-11.pdf

    You can also find out how the Administration for Children and Families,
    U.S. Department of Health and Human Services is promoting child well being through their Strengthening Families initiative focusing on “Protective Factors” that are understood to provide the developing child and their families with resiliencies that will help them overcome the obstacles that they are faced with.

    Click to access guide.pdf

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