We all have been outraged at the story of lead poisoning in Flint, Michigan, which has inflicted the greatest harm on the city's young children. During this period of the most rapid neurological development, lead poisoning has been shown to inflict the most "permanent and irreversible" damage.
What many do not realize is that thousands of Utah children are also being subjected to conditions proven to decrease the amount of grey and white matter, as well as the volume of the amygdala and hippocampus in their brains. This diminished brain development can account for 15 to 20 percent of the achievement gap these children exhibit in school and later in life. The cause of this stunted brain development is that these children are being raised in deep poverty.
Children living at 150 percent of the federally established poverty level and below have many strikes against them. They are often food and housing insecure, and many have no access to well baby medical care. Parents in poverty are often burdened with overtime work, multiple jobs and long commutes, leaving little time for the consistent and positive interactions essential for children's cognitive and emotional development. These children are often subjected to "toxic" levels of stress that strip away essential parts of their brain architecture.
A great deal can be done to alleviate these negative effects of poverty. As the Utah Citizens' Counsel notes in its recent annual report, a number of early training programs for parents and children have proven enormously helpful in mitigating these effects.
Such programs as the Nurse Family Partnership, the Salt Lake School District's Parents as Teachers program and the Granite and Murray District's DDI Vantage Early Head Start Program teach young mothers the skills they need to promote their children's brain development. One of these skills is the "serve and return" process, where the caregiver responds to the babbling, facial expressions and gestures of infants with the same kind of vocalizing and gesturing. Without such responses, the brain architecture fails to develop properly. The programs also teach the importance of reading to children from the beginning, acquainting them with the vocabulary and concepts they need to be kindergarten-ready.
While most eligible parents are eager to participate, these programs are vastly understaffed and underfunded. Thousands of poor children have no access to the services that they need to give them a chance at an independent and productive life.
Some have contended that it is too expensive to expand such programs to serve all who need them. But multiple studies show that the total return on every dollar invested in them is $4 to $9. The additional taxes paid by productive citizens and the savings in outlays for special education, welfare, law enforcement and corrections make early childhood intervention programs an extremely rewarding investment.
We can work on many levels to prevent this tragic loss of brain power. We can pressure our federal representatives to expand proven programs like the Nurse Family Partnership that help children from 1 to 3 when it does the most good. We can find out why Utah has the lowest participation level of any state in the free school breakfast program. We can support efforts by Reps. Ann Millner and Rebecca Edwards (SB67 and SB101) and Rep. Lowry Snow (HB42) to expand early childhood education programs, and we can back organizations like the United Way and Voices for Utah Children as they work to unite private and public agencies to close this glaring "opportunity gap." Let's give all Utah children an equal chance to reach their full potential.
Dr. Cheryll L. May is a member of the Social Support Systems Committee of the Utah Citizens' Counsel and a former adjunct associate professor of political science, University of Utah.