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Rescuing Disposable Children


Barbarism, as in Rosa Luxemburg’s “Socialism or Barbarism,” (Junius Pamphlet, 1916 – from Frederick Engels) should be obvious. That’s the case with killings in war, torture, mass incarcerations, or allowing climate change to work its way. But barbarism may also be slow-moving, even hidden. The outlook for many poor, black children in the United States, for example, is so dismal as to suggest that within that society, they are disposable.

Research studies, validated by experience, point to a strong association between growing up poor and non-white and ending up unprepared for schooling and lifelong health. The University of North Carolina’s Abecedarian Project explored that relationship. An update of the Project’s findings appeared in Science recently and was summarized in the New York Times.  The findings invite thinking about ways to promote learning and health, in all children.

For 40 years, UNC investigators monitored more than 100 individuals they indentified at birth. They were poor, and 98 percent of them were African – American. Half the babies, randomly selected, entered a “treatment” group. The rest continued on without intervention.  From early infancy through age five, over fifty children benefited from skilled, accessible health care and excellent nutrition. Their parents received nutritional education. Importantly, the young children participated in full-time day care with heavy educational content.  At ages six through eight, skilled home visitors provided parents with advice on how to support children’s learning in school. Over many years researchers periodically evaluated both groups from the points of view of learning ability, social adjustment, and eventually adult health.

The Project’s data, just reported, are astounding. The authors conclude: “[W]e find that disadvantaged children randomly assigned to treatment have significantly lower prevalence of risk factors for cardiovascular and metabolic diseases in their mid-30s. The evidence is especially strong for males. The mean systolic blood pressure among the control males is 143 millimeters of mercury … whereas it is only 126 mm Hg among the treated. One in four males in the control group is affected by metabolic syndrome, whereas none in the treatment group are affected.” The term “metabolic syndrome” signifies the presence of at least three of the following: excess abdominal fat, high triglyceride level, low level of “good cholesterol,” high blood pressure, and high blood sugar.

UNC investigators had already reported on other milestones achieved by children in both groups. Remarkably, children with support showed: “higher cognitive test scores from the toddler years to age 21,” higher academic achievement in reading and math from the primary grades through young adulthood, more years in school, higher average age when a first child is born, and higher educational and employment status for mothers of participant children. Twenty three percent of intervention children graduated from a four- year college. Only six percent of children without treatment did so. Young adults benefiting from early intervention were more than twice as likely to be “consistently employed” than the others.

The project’s findings apply potentially to a huge population. In 2012, 23 percent of all U.S. children were living in poverty, defined as a $23,283 annual income for a family of four. And more: 40 percent of black children and 34 percent of Latino children were poor. As reported by the Children’s Defense Fund: “Approximately 1 in 5 Black and 1 in 7 Hispanic children were living in extreme poverty in 2012.” That’s an annual family income of $11,746.

If current patterns of demographic reshuffle continue, the linkage of poverty, non-white ethnic identification, and diminished lives will become even more prominent within U.S. society.  In 2013 white children accounted for 53 percent of all children, with Latino and black children representing 24 and 14 percent of the total, respectively. By 2030, white children will have fallen to 45 percent and Latino children will make up 29 percent. The proportion of black children will remain unchanged.

Clarification is in order: effects of racial and class -based discrimination may be inseparable. A study from Maine 30 years ago, for instance, established a correlation between Maine children’s physical vulnerability and low-come status of their families. The mostly white children – identifiable through participation in social welfare programs – claimed a death rate 3.1 times greater than children not receiving such help when they died. “Children from low-income families were at higher risk for disease-related deaths (3.5:1), accidental deaths (2.6:1), and homicide deaths (5.0:1),”

Many commentators see the Abecedarian Project’s data as lending scientific rationale for universal pre-school education, being pushed now – and justifiably so – at high governmental levels. Yet the main thrust of the UNC study was to look at that stage of child development where intervention does the most good.

That would be the first hours, weeks, and months of a child’s life. According to one specialist, “The simple and unavoidable result of this sequential neurodevelopment is that the organizing, ‘sensitive’ brain of an infant or young child is more malleable to experience than a mature brain.” So, the failure of Head Start children’s gains to last throughout the school years may stem from Head Start intervention being too late. The Abecedarian Project corrected that.

But what about those children enrolled in the Project who received no early educational intervention? They, in fact, are stand-ins for millions of other children who end up marginalized. They are victims of low-key barbarism assuring that many children will never develop as they were able to do. As with disasters cited above, their situation is by no means curable within the structure of U.S. and global capitalism. To expect intensive early intervention being extended to millions of U.S. children under current circumstances is wishful thinking.

It turns out, however, that the needs themselves of young children hint at solution. Child development specialists unite in regarding very early, language-based parent- baby interaction as essential for young infants to make gains. This relationship flourishes through mutual gratification. There are rewards on both sides: the baby smiles – does anything – and a parent is overjoyed. The parent holds, caresses, feeds, and talks, and the baby learns someone cares. Messages go back and forth.

Short circuiting is possible. A parent may be too distracted to engage. Indeed, the world of poverty and racial animosity incubates material shortages, unrealized dreams, anger, a siege mentality, failed human relationships, social isolation, sadness, even depression. A baby may bring parents little joy in such circumstances.

One wonders: what if parents, convinced that a better world is possible, found hope? If they did, maybe children would be bathed in warm expectations. What if parents worked to bring about a new world? Their dignity quotient might be up, and their babies would gain. Of course, most children whose parents are comfortable within U.S. society, and are hopeful, and who value themselves don’t need language-based early intervention.

Beleaguered parents would reject their reality of a dog-eat-dog world and join in on fixing things. They would seek a future where basic human needs are assured, where the intellectual, health, and social potentials of all are realized. Confident and optimistic as they work toward socialist goals, they would enter into new exchanges with babies. There would be a boost even just starting out. Quoting the Spanish poet Antonio Machado, progressive Brazilian educator Paulo Freire observed long ago, “We make the road by walking.”

W.T. Whitney Jr. is a retired pediatrician and political journalist living in Maine.  


W.T. Whitney Jr. is a retired pediatrician and political journalist living in Maine.

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