Poverty could begin in utero


When people complain that poor people aren’t doing enough to help themselves, I remind them most poor folks are children. One in three kids in Chicago live in poverty, according to new data from the U.S. Census Bureau.

We already know that kids who live in poverty are more likely to end up poor as adults, but new science is showing us just how early that cycle could start: in the womb.

Time magazine takes on the new science of fetal origins this week, and the research shows how a mother’s experiences affect
the life of her child – not just for the moment, but for the rest of the child’s life.

Take birth weight, one of the hallmarks of infant
health. New research shows that low-birth weight babies are much
more likely to end up with heart disease and diabetes, two diseases that
we generally think of as being caused by environmental factors. But a
researcher in England noticed that poorer communities had higher rates
of heart disease, and when he took a closer look, it was birth weight
that made the difference. If a fetus isn’t getting enough to
“eat” in the womb, it diverts the nutrients it is getting to feed the
brain and, as a result, the heart suffers. That early damage may persist
through life.

Low birth weight also leads to higher rates of
infant mortality. In Chicago, infant mortality is higher than the
national average, especially when you look at economically depressed
black neighborhoods on the South and West sides. Take a look at a Chicago Reporter analysis of infant mortality from 2006:

infant mortality.png

The children that do survive may deal
with the lasting impacts of low-birth weight throughout their lives.

not just about disease. The science of fetal origins shows that
environmental factors like pollution, obesity and diabetes during
pregnancy, and maternal stress can affect a child’s temperament,
intellect, and predisposition toward mental illness.

This new science may offer some solutions in fighting poverty.
Researchers at the University of Nevada Las Vegas found that when they
talked to young mothers about how their behavior was affecting the lives
of their child, and how they could significantly change the outcome of
their kid’s life by altering the way they live, the moms listened. For
many of them, their own health might not have motivated them to change. But their love for their child and hope for his or her future was a
powerful motivator, researchers found.

But what this also
means is that prenatal health care and education are important resources, even as city and state budgets
grow thin.

Photo credit: Daniel Lobo

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