The boy shouted, "Mom! I am hungry. When are we going to eat?"
The mother grabbed a couple slices of bread and scraped the last of the peanut butter out of the jar. While handing the sandwich to her son, she said, "This needs to hold you until you get breakfast at school tomorrow as this is the last of our food."
Unfortunately, situations like this had been occurring more frequently for the family as they had been facing financial hardship for several months, particularly after the pandemic had hit. According to Kids Count, the number of children living in poverty in Kentucky was 22.3 percent in 2018. That means even before the pandemic, one in five children were living in poverty.
Poverty reduces children's access to healthy foods.
The government has long been aware of the impact of food insecurity on child development. It has free and reduced cost breakfast and lunch programs. Local programs have even been developed to provide backpacks of food for children to take home over the weekend, so they have enough to eat. Making nutritious food available is a start in addressing the effect of poverty on children.
However, food availability is not poverty's only impact.
Parents often try to shield children from the effects of poverty and as they try to take the brunt of its impact on themselves. Yet, parents eventually show the strain. They can become frustrated, less nurturing, and not as tolerant of their children's behavior.
This leads to poorer attachment between parents and their children and undermines parent-child relationships. Eventually this can result in the family experiencing higher rates of abuse and emotional distress.
The cumulative effects of poverty have a range of impacts on children. Their physical health suffers as they often experience higher stress levels and poorer cardiovascular function. They are more likely to be obese and suffer declining motor development. These children's brains do not work as efficiently as other children, leading to difficulties with planning and decision-making.
From a learning perspective, impoverished children have higher incidents of learning disabilities and levels of learned helplessness. This all contributes to higher drop-out rates and getting fewer years of schooling.
The effects of growing up in poverty continue to echo into adulthood.
Adults who grew up in poverty are likely to remain impoverished. They tend to be in poorer health and have higher rates of depression, anxiety, and substance abuse.
These impacts are not predestined for one in five children in Kentucky. There are solutions in addition to the government food program.
The simplest is to help families in poverty by giving them money so they are lifted out of poverty. This allows them to have stable housing, experience less food insecurity, and better access to healthcare.
The recently passed American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 provides funds for families to do just that. It is estimated that the support provided by the expanded child tax credit will cut childhood poverty rates by 45 percent. That means Kentucky's childhood poverty rate would go down to 12 percent.
If this happens, imagine all of the bright futures so many children of the commonwealth will experience that had not been possible before.
Dan Florell, Ph.D., is a professor at Eastern Kentucky University and has a private practice, MindPsi (www.mindpsi.net). Praveena Salins, M.D., is a pediatrician at Madison Pediatric Associates (www.madisonpeds.com).