Poverty, health disparities and the nation's children

In this issue, we discuss the effects of obesity, poverty and discrimination on the health of children and families across communities

By Roseanne Flores, PhD

In 2011, as part of its Strategic Plan, APA approved the Health Disparities Initiative. Although there are many definitions for health disparities, in general the term refers to “avoidable” differences in health among communities of people who experience different social and economic discrimination and exclusion based on a number of factors such as race and ethnicity, socioeconomic status, gender, age, sexual orientation and geographic location (APA, 2012). The Health Disparities Initiative focuses on stress, obesity and substance abuse and addiction — health conditions that were selected because of their pervasiveness in communities experiencing health disparities, their association with chronic diseases, and the APA and psychology’s growing expertise within these areas (APA, 2012).

The current issue of CYF News focuses on poverty, health and the nation’s children. Today in 2012, children are disproportionately represented in communities experiencing health disparities. Since the economic downturn many children are experiencing chronic levels of poverty, a toxic stressor. Toxic stress, particularly experienced during the early years has been found to be associated with deleterious outcomes in learning, behavior, physical and mental health (National Scientific Council on the Developing Child, 2007). In order to ensure that all children are able to reach their full potential, these disparities must be addressed.

The articles for this edition of the CYF News address current research, practices and promising interventions within the field of psychology on this topic. The articles shine a spotlight on the effects of obesity, poverty and discrimination on the health of children and families across communities. 

The first article, “The Nation’s Childhood Obesity Epidemic: Health Disparities in the Making,” is written by Dr. Suzanne Bennett Johnson, the 2012 President of the American Psychological Association. Johnson’s article sets the stage by highlighting the growing problem of obesity in childhood and its link to psychological problems and other risks across the life span.

In the second article, “The Center for Youth Wellness: A Developmental and Community Focused Model for Adolescent Weight Management Program,” Meagher and Leidig describe a treatment program for overweight and obese adolescents based on a contextualized approach involving family, peers and the community.

The third article, “The Neurocognitive Impacts for Children of Poverty and Neglect,” written by Loughan and Perna, discusses the effects of poverty and neglect on children’s cognitive and academic achievement.

The fourth article, “Evidence Based Home Visiting to Enhance Child Health, Child Development and Support Families,” written by Supplee and Adirim, gives an overview of a federally supported initiative to provide evidence based home visiting that will ultimately improve the health and well-being of  children birth to age 5 and their families living in at risk communities. 

The fifth article, “The Intersection of Family and Community Resilience to Enhance Mental Health Among Latino Children, Adolescents and Families,” written by Romero Marin and Garcia Vazquez, focuses on the concept of resilience, and the intersection between community and family resilience as a way of reducing mental health disparities among Latino children and their families.

In the sixth article, “Supporting Children, Youth, and Families in the Systems that Serve Them: Culturally Responsive Practices and Policies to Meet Their Needs,” Martinez, Poirier and Hijjawi discuss the current state of mental health disparities among children and youth and provide a set of recommendations for policies and practices for meeting the health needs among disenfranchised youth.

The seventh article, “Stress Mechanism of Poverty’s Ill Effects on Children: Making the Case for Strengthening Family Interventions that Counteract Poverty-Related Stress,” written by Wadsworth and Rienks, addresses the link between poverty, stress and health in children and their families and interventions that can help to support and strengthen family functioning.

Finally, in “A Public Health Research-to-Practice Model for Improving Child Health and Development in Low-Income Families: CDC’s Legacy for Children,” authors Kaminski, Perou and Robinson discuss the Legacy intervention, which was designed to increase positive parenting practices among low income mothers so as to support the healthy development of their children. 

While the articles in this issue address some key topics, many areas have not been specifically addressed, such as the health disparities experienced among LGBT youth or those experienced by children and families living in rural communities. That being said, I hope that the readers of this issue will see this as a first step in addressing health disparities in children, youth and families as psychology continues to use its expertise and experience to address this issue.

Roseanne Flores, PhDRoseanne L. Flores is an associate professor in the Department of Psychology at Hunter College of the City University of New York. She received her PhD from the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. She is a developmental psychologist by training and was a National Head Start fellow in the Office of Head Start. As part of her fellowship Dr. Flores worked at the Institute of Education Science in the National Center for Education Research. Prior to her work at Head Start, Dr. Flores was a visiting scholar at ETS where she worked in the areas of assessment, research and policy. Dr. Flores will serve as the co-chair of the APA Committee on Children, Youth and Families in 2013.

Dr. Flores’ current research examines the relationship between environmental risk factors, such as community violence, SES, and food insecurity on the health and educational outcomes of children. She recently received an NIH grant to examine the relationships between poverty and nutrition and African-American and Latino preschool children’s early learning skills. She has published a number of peer-reviewed journal articles and book chapters on child development.