Sunday, August 2, 2009

Poverty is Not Good For you

Everyone knows that poor people have more health problems than people who are well-off. Many poor people also do not live as long as people in better economic conditions. Poor middle-aged men have much low life expectancy than rich ones. The same is true for poor women and the discrepancies in life expectancy between the poor and the rich have grown in recent years.
We understand the reasons for this: poor people can't afford to see a doctor. If they work they usually do not get health insurance from their employers. Many poor people work several jobs and wear out their bodies prematurely. Good food is more expensive. Vegetables, especially organic ones, are really pricey. Soda is cheaper than milk. Poverty is enormously stressful. It is more difficult to have a well organized life with regular of home-cooked meals when you are constantly struggling to make ends meet. Poor nutrition, spotty healthcare, and a life full of stress all work together to shorten lives.
But now comes news of the Perry Preschool Project. In the 1960s researchers took African-American children, born into poverty, and assigned some of them to a high-quality preschool program .while others received no preschool education whatsoever. They then followed these children, who are now in their 40s, into adulthood. Those who were assigned to the preschool program were more likely to have graduated from high school and less likely to have had problems with the law. Men and women who had attended the preschool program as infants showed more are self-control as adult and more perseverance in the face of challenging tasks. They were able to lead better lives because their personalities were stronger.
It is not too difficult to think of reasons why children, especially children growing up in poverty and targets of racial discrimination, should thrive as adults after they attended the high quality preschool program. Small children need attention. What better attention than to have adults take them seriously by teaching them various skills, social and intellectual. Being attended to regularly during these early years leaves an important message: You are an important person, you are valuable, you have reasons to be proud of yourself. Children who learn that when they are small are less likely to be discouraged when life becomes difficult. They are more likely to take themselves and their goals seriously enough to persevere until they succeed. They are less likely to sabotage themselves by getting into trouble with the law.
Most poor children-- white and black -- do not get that sort of attention. And thus they grow up more likely to be easily discouraged, to be easily distracted from long range goal by momentary temptations. Their adult lives often show the consequences of these early neglects.
This is not only about poor people, it is about all of America. We like to say of children that they can become president but we know, if we only think about it, but that is not true. Poor children are held back by the poverty. Their abilities to not develop as fully. Their health is likely to be worse. Their future is gloomier from the very beginning.
If we want to be serious about America as a country that offers opportunities to everyone, we need to be more serious about poverty. Instead of giving billions and billions to bankers who then get a million-dollar bonuses for Christmas, we need to start another “War on Poverty” to put an end to poverty as we know it.