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Families Living in Poverty in Southeast Michigan

In our state, 25 percent of kids now live in poverty. What does it mean to grow up poor in metro Detroit? What are their hopes for the future? Local families share their reality.

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Behind before the start

Even before they are born, children coming into the world as a member of a poor family are often already at a disadvantage. Prenatal care may have been lacking for some or all of their time in utero, leading to higher risk for their pre-term birth and low birth weight.

While low-income women may be eligible for Medicaid once pregnant, they may not know that, notes Zehnder-Merrell.

"They may be worried about the cost of prenatal care," Zehnder-Merrell says. Or, "they may not even know they're pregnant for a while. Those first three months of a pregnancy are vital, and low-income women are likely not to be getting care."

These circumstances lead to disproportionately higher infant mortality rates among low-income families.

"Babies born to low-income families are often born too small or too soon, leading to developmental delays, chronic disease, mental retardation and even death," Zehnder-Meller says.

Once that baby does enter the world, he or she is less likely to be breast-fed. While it may seem like a likely choice for a mother in financial duress to opt for this free and advantageous way to nourish her child, her circumstances are less likely to be conducive to pursuing this option.

"Many low-income women work in retail or restaurant settings or hold other jobs that make it difficult to breast-feed," says Zehnder-Merrell. "It's likely that there is nowhere private for them to pump their breasts. It's likely they don't have control over their schedule, either. Breast-feeding thus presents a formidable challenge."

When Sanders gave birth to her first child, she didn't for one minute consider breast-feeding him.

"I didn't know anything about it," she recalls. "And I didn't care. Even if I did know, I would never have breast-fed in the environment in which I lived, where I might wake up and find a strange man standing over my bed."

And the gap widens

After birth, the cards continue to stack against children born into low-income families. They are more likely to be at risk for chronic health issues like obesity, high blood pressure, lead poisoning and asthma.

The physical challenges a low-income child faces are often accompanied by emotional and developmental challenges. Being raised by a parent stressed or depressed over his or her circumstances can be felt by even the youngest of children.

Common experiences among children in poor families include less exposure to rich learning opportunities, less parental attention and less focus on the things that help kids begin to develop the vital cognitive functioning in the first three years of life that put them on par developmentally, socially and behaviorally with their peers.

Sheila Smith, Ph.D., director of Early Childhood at the National Center for Child Poverty at Columbia University, says research has shown that discrepancies between children from low- and middle-income families in behavior and skills associated with later reading ability are visible as early as 12-24 months of age.

"We've seen research that at as early as even 9 months of age, differences in vocalizations can be detected in children, favoring more affluent kids," Smith notes. "Mothers living in poverty experience more struggles and are more likely to be depressed. They have fewer resources to respond to their baby's vocalizations that can ignite development."

A now-famous 1995 study conducted by Betty Hart and Todd Risley titled "Meaningful Differences in the Everyday Experience of Young American Children" found that a gap of 30 million words exists by age 3 between children from families on welfare and children from professional families. The researchers went on to find a high correlation between vocabulary at age 3 and a child's language test scores at ages 9 and 10.

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