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Fighting poverty with education; hope for breaking the cycle of multi-generational poverty

Published: Monday, Oct. 22 2012 9:47 a.m. MDT

First Lady Jeanette Herbert, chair of the Governor's Commission on Literacy, helped launch Utah's participation in jumpstarting 2012 'Read for the Record' by reading Ladybug and the Bug Squad with students at Jackson Elementary in Salt Lake City.

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SALT LAKE CITY — Education is the brightest hope for breaking the cycle of multi-generational poverty. But, kids born to poor, under-educated parents aren't likely to succeed at school without help that targets their family situations, and that help is most needed during their earliest years.

Those are among conclusions of "Child Poverty and Its Lasting Consequence," a study by the Washington, D.C.-based think tank the Urban Institute.

A harrowing portrait of the United States' growing underclass emerges from the longitudinal study, which analyzed poverty rates for more than 13,000 newborns born between 1967 and 2008.

Poverty's long reach

The Urban Institute's social policy researchers found that one in six U.S. newborns was born poor, and nearly half of those babies went on to spend at least half of their childhood in poverty. More than one-third of poor children were born into "deep poverty" — to parents living on incomes less than 50 percent of the federal poverty level. In 2012 this amounts to an annual income of $9,545 for a family of three.

Parents' low educational attainment was shown to predict persistent poverty for their children more consistently than any other factor the study investigated — including single motherhood, family unemployment, young age of parents or living in inner-city neighborhoods.

Earning a high school diploma can help break the cycle of multi-generational poverty, but persistent poverty makes earning that diploma a tough challenge, the study said. Children who spend more than half of their childhoods poor are nearly 90 percent more likely than never-poor children to enter their 20s without completing high school.

"What we really see is that children often follow in their parent's footsteps in regard to educational attainment," said Caroline Ratcliffe, an economist who co-authored the study. "Children whose parents don't graduate from high school are likely to drop out, too. Those without a high school degree by age 20 are more likely to have patchy employment in young adulthood, and be poor as an adult. You can see the cycle."

Newborns and minorities hard-hit

Poverty strikes its most innocent victims hardest of all, the report found. Stresses associated with poverty — including malnutrition, lack of mental stimulation, poor health care, frequent moving and general insecurity — have their direst effect on newborns and children up to age two. Children who live in poverty in those first years of life are about 30 percent less likely to complete high school than children who became poor later in childhood, according to the "Child Poverty and Its Lasting Consequence" report.

"I think what this report is saying is that early interventions are very important," Ratcliffe said, "Targeting resources to these kids from birth is vital, because home environment in early years is so important to brain development."

A National Science Academy study corroborated poverty's effects on young brains, showing that the stresses of childhood poverty reduce working memory in young adults. Low income and low academic achievement are already advancing in lockstep by the time children enter kindergarten, and the longer children must endure economic hardship, the lower their achievement levels sink, it said.

Deepest poverty strikes minority children at higher rates than white children. Forty-six percent of poor black newborns live in deep poverty, while only 30 percent of poor white newborns do. Longitudinal data on Latino children wasn't kept before the 1990s, so long-term comparisons weren't made. However, among children born in the 1990s, 39 percent of Hispanic newborns were born poor, compared to 44 percent of black children and 10 percent of white newborns.

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