Start Early to Close the Achievement Gap

By age 3, children in low-income families have smaller vocabularies than middle-class kids of the same age. This “achievement gap” persists throughout school and culminates in lower graduation rates for children growing up in poverty. I’m not offering a magic bullet to close the achievement gap. Complex problems, unfortunately, tend to require complex solutions. But I can think of two key elements to any effort to address the gap: We need to start early and we need to think broadly.

Remember, we’re seeing language deficits by age 3. We also know that those first three years are spent forming trillions of synapses — 90 percent of the brain development we’ll experience in our lifetimes. So the question is: Can a baby living in poverty have the rich experiences that encourage healthy development? We know that great early childhood education helps. Kids who participate in early childhood education are more likely to graduate high school and 2.5 times more likely go on to higher education.

People in my line of work are fond of referring to social programs as “investments.” It’s hard to think of any area were the term is more apt than early childhood. Kids in good early childhood programs achieve higher, contribute more in taxes and require less in public services. One study found that the return on investment in early childhood education is $17 for every $1 spent.

As I said, we need to think broadly and deliver services to poor families where and how they need them. For example, my community reserved some spots in high quality early childhood programs for low-income families, but we found the families that needed them most didn’t know about the program. So we used non-traditional marketing, like lawn signs, to get the word out.

Once families knew about the slots, there were still needs to be met. Most child care programs require parents to supply disposable diapers for their children. The neediest families simply couldn’t afford them. It took an entire non-profit organization to address that.

Hats off to the community in Lafayette, La., that is crafting a broad-based strategy to close the achievement gap, including:

… the creation of health and wellness teams (to) help address issues as they happen, rather than just letting students move through the school system without any intervention.

I believe Lafayette is able to be smart about boosting achievement, because it isn’t getting stuck in the “blame the victim” trap that so often accompanies discussions about poverty. In an interview with The Advertiser, United Way of Acadiana Executive Director Margaret Trahan said: “The stereotype that poor parents don’t care, I know, is a myth.” The Advertiser reports, “She said many parents in poverty struggle with multiple jobs, odd shifts, problems getting adequate childcare and a lack of reliable transportation.”

Every family faces challenges. In poor communities, those challenges form a long and daunting list. If we want kids of all income levels to succeed, we need to find ways to scratch things off that list.

Follow Joanne Goldblum on Twitter: www.twitter.com/jgoldblum

 

This article was first published in The Huffington Post on November 27, 2012.

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Living in a Diaper Desert

new study by Rice University researchers finds that children who grow up in poor neighborhoods are more likely to be obese. The link between poverty and obesity has shown up in many studies. What’s different about this research is that the neighborhood itself, rather than the family’s economic status, is singled out. Author Justin Denney, a Rice sociologist, explains:

We know there are characteristics specific to families and individual children that are associated with obesity. Those relationships are pretty well understood at this point, but less well understood are community influences, such as the social and demographic characteristics of the places people live. Neighborhood poverty is associated with childhood obesity above and beyond the poverty status of the child’s family and other individual and family characteristics. This tells us there is something about the community that is also influencing childhood obesity.

In poor neighborhoods, residents pay higher prices for lower quality food. Here’s an interesting exercise: Go to Google Maps and type in the zip code of the poorest neighborhood in your area. Then use the “search nearby” function to look for supermarkets. You’ll find convenience stores, delis and so on. My guess is that you won’t find many places to buy broccoli. Certainly, you won’t see the kind of competition that spurs the supermarket price wars that can lead to great sales on products like chicken breasts and bags of apples in suburban neighborhoods. That’s why many urban areas are referred to as “food deserts.”

There are some admirable programs, such as urban farmer’s markets, under way to bring healthy food to poor neighborhoods. We also need to start thinking about “diaper deserts.”

Many parents buy their diapers at warehouse clubs, where they are most affordable. But to get that good deal, they need a car, a nearby warehouse club, money for the membership, space to store a case of diapers and enough cash (or credit) to be able to buy in bulk.

The next best deal on diapers is found in supermarkets. Again, parents need a few things to take advantage of supermarket prices: a car and/or a nearby supermarket and enough cash (or credit) to be able to buy in diapers in the packages generally sold in these markets.

Parents who have none of these resources buy their diapers in convenience stores within walking distance of their homes. The packages are small — sometimes as few as six in a box — and the per-diaper price is the highest of any option you’ll find.

People often say to me: Why don’t these families choose reusable cloth diapers? Because renters typically don’t have washing machines, and many laundromats don’t allow people to wash diapers. Even if a family is lucky enough to have a facility in their neighborhood where they can wash diapers, imagine the logistics. A pregnant mom was recently thrown off a city bus because the smell of her baby’s soiled diaper offended the driver. How would people react to a parent carrying a sack of dirty diapers? Add to that the difficulty of managing a child (or children) on public transportation.

So there you have it — a diaper desert. That’s why so many struggling families report choosing between paying the electric bill, buying food or purchasing enough diapers to change their babies whenever they are wet.

Much attention has been focused on changing food deserts for the sake of the nation’s health, as it should be. Let’s not forget, though, that good food is not the only thing a child needs. No community will be a healthy place for a child to grow up until all a baby’s basic needs are accessible and affordable.

Follow Joanne Goldblum on Twitter: www.twitter.com/jgoldblum

This article was first published in the Huffington Post on November 15, 2012.

Unnatural Disasters

When the Daily News sent truckloads of goods to Staten Island, it wasn’t the food and bottled water that got the most enthusiastic reception from residents battered by Hurricane Sandy.

“Thank God you guys had diapers, thank God theDaily News got diapers,” Salvatore Antonelli said as the News truck laden with the precious cargo arrived.

Antonelli said he and pal Regina Azzarelli have 11 grandchildren between them. And ever since Sandy struck last week, diapers have been in demand.

At the National Diaper Bank Network, we partnered with Huggies and the American Red Cross to get diapers to families hard-hit by the storm. We also got a call from an absolute angel of a man who is personally donating 20,000 diapers to children affected by the storm in New Jersey and New York. We were able to accept large donations and get diapers into disaster areas quickly thanks to our distribution partner, Kids in Distressed Situations. We were honored to be able to help babies in this time of need.

The generosity we’ve seen in the past week has been inspiring. The task of those of us who run non-profits is to find a better way to communicate need outside of these extraordinary events. Diapers, like food, water and housing, are a necessity. During a natural disaster like Sandy, we all recognize that.

But for many families, every day is a disaster where it’s a struggle to meet children’s basic needs. Yet the traditional safety net programs that benefit poor children, like WIC and Food Stamps, do not pay for diapers. Except in extreme circumstances, we don’t treat diapers like the necessities that they are.

One in three families struggles to provide diapers. As a result, babies are left in wet diapers and get rashes and infections. One in twenty moms reports emptying out soiled diapers and reusing them because she cannot afford to change her baby. Those are shocking statistics. Worse: They are unnecessary statistics.

The past week has shown what we can all do when we see people in need and then resolve to help. We need to translate that resolve into an ongoing commitment to reach out to families who are rocked by a layoff, an eviction or a hospital bill that’s more than a year’s pay. People face storms of many kinds. The question is: How committed are we to helping our neighbors weather them?

Follow Joanne Goldblum on Twitter: www.twitter.com/jgoldblum

This post appeared originally in The Huffington Post on November 9, 2012

Stress and the Cuddle Deficiency

Hugs are free. As a mother of three, I gave them away with abandon — until my kids reached the age where they made rules about public displays of affection. Can economic hardship get in the way of something as basic as a mother-child snuggle?

Nick Kristof had a great column about ways that parents can help kids succeed, even while growing up in poverty. He cites a series of studies that show kids of affectionate, supportive parents do better in school and in life.

As I said, hugs are free. But a dad who just rode three buses to put in a job application, only to be told the position is filled, might not be in a cuddly mood. A mother suffering with a toothache because she can’t afford to go to the dentist is less likely to take a child in her lap and read aloud. As Kristof explains:

Children in poor households grow up under constant stress, disproportionately raised by young, single mothers also under tremendous stress, and the result may be brain architecture that makes it harder for the children to thrive at school or succeed in the work force.

There was also an NIH report released in August arguing that the stress of poverty affects kids’ ability to learn:

The stresses of poverty — such as crowded conditions, financial worry, and lack of adequate child care — lead to impaired learning ability in children from impoverished backgrounds, according to a theory by a researcher funded by the National Institutes of Health. The theory is based on several years of studies matching stress hormone levels to behavioral and school readiness test results in young children from impoverished backgrounds.

It comes as no surprise that it’s stressful to be poor. What most of us don’t realize is how that stress pervades every area of a family’s life together. Most parents want to do what’s best for their kids. But the more stress a family is under, the harder it is to be a model parent all the time. Make no mistake: Many low-income parents do an outstanding job. But they to did it while coping with calls from creditors, winter jackets that have grown too small and neighborhoods where there’s no safe place to play.

There’s a school of thought that we should help the poor — but not too much. We fear that too much support will create dependency. A friend who worked in a soup kitchen was amazed at how often people would ask, “Do you think the people who eat there really need it?” She always answered, “Oh, not at all. They come for the ambiance.”

We want to cut low-income families off any kind of public assistance as quickly as possible, whether they’re in a job that will allow them to pay for good daycare or not. We want to make sure there’s no television in that subsidized apartment, even though entertainment is at a premium when the playground is unsafe and a trip to the movies is an unthinkable luxury. We don’t want them to starve, but we don’t want things to be too easy. At some level, our policies feed this chronic stress.

We love rags-to-riches stories of people who grew up in poverty and achieved great things. These stories are so compelling because they are the exception, not the rule. What social workers have known forever is now backed up by science: The extreme stress of growing up in poverty can put a kid on track for a lifetime of poverty.

It doesn’t have to be that way. I’ve seen firsthand how simply providing clean diapers for low-income families comes as a huge relief to parents. There are a thousand “little things” that can trip up a poor family. The weight of all those little things can get in the way of what more fortunate families take for granted: rolling around in a leaf pile together, giggling over cups of cocoa on a snow day, a big hug after blowing out all the candles. These are little things, too, but they have an enormous effect that can last a lifetime.

Follow Joanne Goldblum on Twitter: www.twitter.com/jgoldblum

This article was first published in The Huffington Post, on November 2. 2012.

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