April 22, 2019 | 59° F

REYES: Economic prosperity is tied to child-focused policy

Opinions Column: And (Economic) Justice For All

In conversations about how to address societal illnesses, we largely gloss over the nuances and complexities of the situation. Many times, issues like poverty, hunger, homelessness and violence are often discussed in silos, influencing the ways in which we tackle them. However, if we are to solve these social problems and promote economic growth, it is essential to get to the root of the issue as early as possible. That is why a child-centered approach to community and economic development can give neighborhoods, states and nations an opportunity to mitigate and prevent devastating dilemmas while supporting community health and economic prosperity.

Since our youngest global residents are the foundation of nations and humanity, restricting their capabilities results in stifled life opportunities and untapped potential contributions to society. Moreover, early childhood is a critical formative stage in human development. Not accessing quality and adequate care, stimulation, nutrition and a safe and healthy environment can lead to diminished cognitive development and weakened immunity. What happens in the early years can have a large impact — researchers have shown how experiencing a number of risk factors like poverty, homelessness and toxic stress in childhood can create a compounding effect that can influence academic achievement, earnings, social relationships and health. A pressing problem stemming from these risk factors is economic instability. This issue can quickly spiral into family turbulence and ultimately homelessness. A number of studies have found that more than 90 percent of mothers with children experiencing homelessness are survivors of traumatic stress. Consequentially, their children are disproportionately more likely to have emotional and behavioral problems. This is a sobering example of how interconnected economic stability is with healthy family environments and how adopting supports for parents can have tremendous benefits for their children.

Especially concerning are the findings of a recent study conducted by the World Health Organization which estimated that 250 million, or 43 percent, of children in low- and middle-income families cannot reach their full developmental potential due to the negative ramifications of poverty, nutritional inadequacies and scarce learning opportunities. That is one-eighth of the world’s children being set up to fail. With many more families in other countries, particularly those in the United States, struggling to make ends meet despite working full-time, the sheer number of children without adequate, positive developmental support is enough to infuriate any parent, family member, student or concerned resident.

While the situation is grave, there are numerous ways that anyone can get involved to advocate for the rights, health, education and well-being of children — by acting and thinking locally and globally. Supporting local and state public health initiatives like community gardening and farmers markets, active transportation and community health education programs are great ways to be engaged in your neighborhood. If you are a student in the social, health, environmental or biomedical sciences, consider volunteering at local clinics, schools,  health departments, social services and planning and community development — it might even become a passion that could lead to a fulfilling, high-impact career. We all can become informed about the various local, state and federal policies — as well as those in countries you are connected to — that impact children, which span numerous disciplines including education, poverty alleviation, community and economic development, health and environment. Knowing your state and federal representatives and their policy stances and holding them accountable through phone calls, emails and direct action can go a long way toward promoting policies that positively affect children in your district and beyond.

The healthy and positive development of all children should be supported by members of the community. Children of disadvantaged groups are particularly susceptible to poor health and developmental outcomes because of the various systemic and structural inequalities present in the United States and in many countries around the globe. When we focus our priorities on meeting the developmental and health needs of children, we can break various, seemingly intractable, historical intergenerational cycles of poverty, economic mobility, chronic health conditions, violence and abuse, racism, ableism, sexism, homophobia and transphobia. Policy and programmatic approaches oriented toward actualizing the full potential of all children not only ensures that their best interests and needs are met, but it also establishes a foundation for sustainable human development that has cascading implications for our ability to live on a planet that promotes our health and well-being. We cannot afford to continue abandon generations of children — forgoing their health, happiness and potential — without facing serious consequences in the long-run. Encouraging and investing in a child-focused policy approach can help us right these injustices and ensure economic prosperity for all people and nations.

Thalya Reyes is an Edward J. Bloustein School master's candidate for public policy and city and regional planning. Her column, “And (Economic) Justice For All,” runs on alternate Wednesdays.

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Thalya Reyes

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