Poverty in America Series
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Let’s assume that Senators Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema are decent people, not callous to children in poverty. That would mean that they’re merely clueless. They are not connecting the dots. As they insist on slashing President Biden’s proposed $322 billion in housing subsidies, they cannot possibly understand how much lifelong damage that will do to kids.

Biden and the Democratic leaders are trying to break a key link in the chain reaction of poverty. Housing is that link. Without government aid, high rents leave less money for food, leading to malnutrition, parental stress, and disrupted living, all of which can impair brain development in young children. The scientific and social research has been clear on this for decades. Yet the connections are rarely recognized by legislators and officials—and journalists, as well—who persistently treat each problem and government program as separate and distinct, with little regard for the web of interactions among the hardships that struggling families face.

In many parts of the country, the private housing market is brutal for low-wage workers. Nationwide, households in the bottom 20 percent spend a median of 56 percent of their income on rent. The rest of their monthly funds are committed to paying for electricity, water, phone, heat, car loans, and the like. What they can shrink is the part of their budget for food. And without proper nutrition during critical periods of early life, children suffer cognitive impairment that is not undone even if food security is later restored. (See my earlier story“A Hungry Child’s First Thousand Days” in these pages.)

Stress is also a factor in brain development, researchers have found. Even if a family doesn’t become homeless but lives with constant tension over paying the rent and other bills, the anxiety can be absorbed by children, both in utero and after birth. Imagine—if you can—the anxiety of parents who have too little food for their children, for feeding offspring is a most elemental instinct and duty.

Furthermore, children’s biological and mental health is damaged when families have to move repeatedly or reside in poor housing with lead in the water from old pipes, roaches, and mold that can trigger asthma attacks, and overcrowding that often causes household friction.

The study of stress has been a significant addition to the understanding of the environmental impacts on the brain, to the point where the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention devotes an entire website to updating research on risks and prevention. In its list of what scientists in a seminal study call “adverse childhood experiences,” the CDC includes housing issues along with more obvious traumas such as suffering neglect and witnessing violence or suicide.

Actual brain chemistry and architecture can be affected by “families with caregivers experiencing high levels of parenting stress or economic stress,” the CDC reports, “communities with unstable housing and where residents move frequently,” or “where families experience food insecurity.” Protective factors include “communities with access to safe, stable housing.”

It would be nice if Manchin and Sinema would read and respect their own country’s expertise. Sinema labels herself a former social worker. It’s hard to imagine any social worker with proper training and credentials failing to grasp these pernicious risks to children’s futures.

Specialists identify three types of stress: positive, tolerable, and toxic. The response to each of these determines its long-term effects. A certain amount of transitory stress is necessary to healthy development, according to Harvard’s Center on the Developing Child. “Some situations that might trigger a positive stress response are the first day with a new caregiver or receiving an injected immunization.”

Tolerable stress—a death in the family or a natural disaster—can elevate alert levels for a longer period, but “if the activation is time-limited and buffered by relationships with adults who help the child adapt, the brain and other organs recover from what might otherwise be damaging effects.”

Toxic stress, which can include prolonged economic hardship, occurs when the body’s stress response is activated for an extensive period without adequate adult support. That “can disrupt the development of brain architecture and other organ systems, and increase the risk for stress-related disease and cognitive impairment, well into the adult years,” the center notes. Diabetes, heart disease, depression, substance abuse, and developmental delays may result.

The biological chemistry is no mystery. “When a child experiences toxic stress,” according to the pediatrician Kari Phang, “the Hypothalamic Pituitary and Adrenal (HPA) hormone axis is over-activated. This results in blood levels of the stress hormone cortisol being higher which can result in long term changes in inflammation and immunity. Studies have shown associations between toxic stress and changes in brain structure. The consequences of this can include more anxiety as well as impaired memory and mood control. Toxic stress responses can also include changes in gene expression, meaning which genes in your DNA are turned on or off.”

Since housing is a major factor in stress-producing hardships, increasing subsidies is an important part of the Biden administration’s proposal in its $3.5 trillion social spending bill—which won’t be enacted, thanks to Manchin and Sinema and the Senate Republicans. Of the $322 billion in proposed housing subsidies, $200 billion would go for the federal program of vouchers that about 2 million poor families now use to pay part of their rent. It is a sad but undeniable fact that America’s vaunted free market economy alone does not enable low-wage workers enough income to live healthy lives, either emotionally or physically.

Glenn Thrush reports in The New York Times that the funds would add 750,000 families to the program, going partway to alleviating a waiting list so enormous that some local authorities have stopped taking new applicants. You have to wait to get on the waiting list. But even that additional aid would barely make a dent, since limited funding leaves an estimated 16 million eligible households unable to get rental assistance, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

Manchin, Sinema, and their short-sighted colleagues are wielding their devastating axes against the powerless people who depend on government lifelines. As Thrush points out, housing subsidies are vulnerable to cuts because they enjoy less popular support than programs benefiting the middle class as well as the poor: preschool education, health care, community college.

This blindness to the harm inflicted on children displays the country’s poverty—its poverty of understanding.

David K. Shipler

David K. Shipler is a Washington Monthly contributing writer; Pulitzer Prize–winning author of seven books, including Russia: Broken Idols, Solemn Dreams; and former Moscow bureau chief for The New York Times. He blogs at The Shipler Report and cohosts the podcast Two Reporters. Follow David on Twitter @DavidShipler.