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Panel Says Early Childhood Poverty Impacts Productivity, Health

SAN DIEGO--Evidence is accumulating that poverty-related stress from birth to age 5 affects neurological development, including the expression of genes and the release of hormones which has implications for physical and mental health later in life, reseachers said Sunday.

Research indicates that children living in poverty, especially during early childhood, are likely to earn and work less and are at an increase risk for chronic diseases has been widely-documented. But scientists speaking at a Sunday press briefing at the AAAS Annual Meeting here said that researchers may be closer to learning about the specific mechanisms.

Whether biology or environment has a stronger impact on the shape of a person's character has long been a polarizing question among researchers and among the public. But speaking at the AAAS meeting, W. Thomas Boyce, M.D., professor of pediatrics at the University of British Columbia, said that biology-focused research is not in opposition to studies that explore poverty from a more social orientation.

"The question of 'is it nature or nurture' should be all but over because clearly they are affecting each other," said Boyce, adding that future research will explore the permanence of poverty's biology effects.

Greg J. Duncan, distinguished professor of education at the University of California, Irvine, described research that found "surprisingly strong associations" between family income in the child's first five years and their later productivity--indicated by their salary and number of work hours per year.

His study found that an $3000 annual increase in income between birth to age 5 is associated with 17% higher earnings and 135-hour increase in work hours per year.

"We perhaps should be paying more attention to families with younger children and direct interventions toward them," he said. He also added that he is using economics to predict productivity, not happiness.

Katherine Magnuson, assistant professor of social work at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, described research in which she examined the impacts of three public economic  policies and programs on future productivity: welfare, the Earned Income Tax Credit, and the distribution of casino revenues to Native American's in the Smoky Mountains in North Carolina.

She found "modest but meaningful" impacts following the public policies. Early educational enrichment and quality of parenting can be correlated with household income, suggesting that households with a higher income may have access to better childcare, books, and lessons in a child's early years, said Magnuson.

Discovering the biological implications of poverty does not mean that children are predetermined to to be less successful, said Jack P. Shonkoff, M.D., professor of child health and development at Harvard University, nor does it suggest that early social interventions are ineffective.

"Learning the biological effects of poverty during early childhood allows you to enhance early education and other social interventions," he said, adding the research is showing how the stress of poverty is translated into the body. "It most likely will tell us why we are not getting the most bang for our buck."