The grinding reality of growing up poor

From foreclosure to food shortages, the economic downturn set in motion by the financial crisis of 2008 is having a broad and deeply-felt global impact.
By Petula Dvorak
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 30, 2010; 10:59 PM

When kids are poor, they are little adults, weighed down by a world of no.

And I'm not talking, "No, you can't have a new Spider-Man backpack," or, "No more princess shoes for you."

The no of poverty in kids' lives today means no new clothes, no bed, no sleeping past 5 a.m. or we won't have time to take three buses to get to your school, no telling the guard at the Metro station that we're sleeping there tonight, no after-school tutoring program designed just for you, because, the truth is, we can't afford to get you there and back every day.

This is the daily reality for thousands of our children, especially African American children growing up in the District.

We found out this week that three out of 10 children in the nation's capital were living in poverty last year. Thousands more were on the edge of poverty, which is defined as an income of $22,000 for a family of four, according to census figures. And the ranks of the desperate and near-desperate were growing in the suburbs as well.

In the District, there were about 7,000 more black children living in poverty last year than there were two years before. That's more than a third of the seating at Verizon Center.

Some people think that this kind of childhood wreaks greater havoc on a child than almost any Pat Conroy-child-abuse scenario.

"Poverty trumps mistreatment, absolutely," said Sheryl Brissett-Chapman, executive director of the National Center for Children and Families in Bethesda.

She explained that being extremely poor grinds down a child, that poverty gets into the brain and under the skin. Literally, actually.

Studies show that increased levels of cortisol, a chemical produced in the body as a result of stress, can seriously affect a child's brain development, stunting memory and disrupting learning patterns.

The stress of living in poverty gnaws at children. Poor kids who took part in one study were found to have elevated levels of cortisol in the morning. When the children showed up at a high-quality, small-group day-care center, where they bonded well with their teacher, the cortisol levels dropped. By afternoon, they were similar to the morning levels of their middle-class counterparts.

So, essentially, being poor costs a kid at least half a day in the classroom just to get the brain back to normal.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2010 The Washington Post Company