Children are our future (first appeared in The Norwalk Patch)

Children are the poorest age group in the country, according to the Children’s Defense Fund. Nearly 22% of all US children live in families with incomes below the federal poverty level– $23,550 a year for a family of four. Current and future health risks are greatest for children who experience poverty when they are young and/or when they experience persistent poverty, according to several reports. Where do these dismal trends fit into the national dialogue about building a healthier America?

According to the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s (RWJF) 2014 report, improving the health of all Americans should start with an investment “in the foundations of lifelong physical and mental well-being in our youngest children.” Investing in the very young fosters success in later life and may reverse the negative health consequences of prolonged exposure to adversity (e.g. the Adverse Childhood Experiencesstudy was among the first investigations to report a strong link between adverse early childhood experiences and conditions such as depression, addiction, diabetes, and heart disease). Support for vulnerable young children should therefore be a national health priority. The building blocks for a lifetime of good health should include education and “direct interventions designed to improve health and protect the developing brain from significant adversity that can lead to illness.” Health initiatives may include strategies to decrease widespread childhood obesity– a key risk factor for numerous chronic conditions. The New England Journal of Medicine reported that” incident obesity between the ages of 5 and 14 years was more likely to have occurred at younger ages, primarily among children who had entered kindergarten overweight [1].”

The RWJF report focused on factors that must be addressed in order to prevent the United States from slipping even lower than its 2009 ranking of 27th place in terms of life expectancy at birth (out of 34 of the world’s affluent countries). The recommendations are:

1.       Make investing in America’s youngest children a high priority

2.       Fundamentally change how we revitalize neighborhoods, fully integrating health into community development

3.       The nation must take a much more health-focused approach to health care financing and delivery. Broaden the mindset, mission, and incentives for health professionals and health care institutions beyond treating illness to helping people lead healthy lives

The health and educational rewards of meeting the first objective are currently being measured in different states. For instance, a longitudinal study (2006-7) of the outcomes associated with 3 cohorts of 4-year olds in 11 Utah schools most impacted by poverty, showed that at-risk children (who attended high quality preschool programs) used special education services at significantly reduced rates compared with those who did not receive high-quality early tuition (cost savings of about $1 million). Moreover, the SY06-07 Preschool Cohort had closed the achievement gap by the 3rd grade. Social impact investments, along the lines of the Early Childhood Innovation Accelerator, could increase the access, availability, and quality of early childhood programs for disadvantaged children. The aim of the Accelerator is to “rapidly increase the availability of high-quality early childhood learning opportunities, while building measurable successes backed by evidence, accountability and results.”

The priorities for meeting all the health objectives were summarized in a recent Google hangout and the full report of the RWJF commission can be viewed here.

Reference

1.    Cunningham, S.A., M.R. Kramer, and K.M.V. Narayan, Incidence of Childhood Obesity in the United States. New England Journal of Medicine, 2014. 370(5): p. 403-411.

The life that a child deserves to live (First appeared in The Norwalk Patch)

We deserve to live a quiet life without anxiety and fear.

We deserve to know that we don’t need to come back to the shelters today, tomorrow, or next month.

We deserve to stop hearing voices of the missiles.

We deserve to live in our houses, not in the shelter nearby.

The words echoed by Israeli teenagers from the Eye2Israel project reflect their perspectives on an endless conflict that has stymied leaders on both sides of the political and religious divide. However, this post is not about politics or religion. It is about meeting children in Union Square, New York City, and seeing the world through their eyes. It is about hope and idealism, in spite of being faced with adversity. Last year, I was privileged to meet the bright scientific and technological minds that will continue to cement the reputation of Israel as a technology powerhouse. A group of ninth- through twelfth-graders from the Israel Scientific and Technological School network showcased inventions ranging from a mobile application (to alert smartphone users about food allergens) to a prototype for a wearable sensor designed to aid blind people. The high-technology inventions and expertise on display at the Union Square exhibit and the enthusiasm with which students freely shared their knowledge, speak volumes about the results of investing in the education of children. According to the nation’s research and development service, Israel has 135 academically educated engineers and scientists per 10,000 population compared to 81 per 10,000 in the US. Companies such as Intel, IBM, Motorola, Applied Materials, BMC, Creo, Marvell, Cisco, Hewlett-Packard, and Nestlé have research and development centers in Israel.

Where are the future scientists and engineers of the USA? They are undoubtedly being cultivated in charter schools, STEM programs and other nationwide educational efforts. While the experts debate whether US teenagers are lagging in science, technology, and mathematics versus the rest of the world, it is also important to pay attention to theidea that teachers “ought to think in terms of working with – and learning from – their counterparts in other countries so that children everywhere will become more proficient and enthusiastic learners.”

Sometimes it may be as easy as crossing to the other side of Union Square to spread infectious enthusiasm about science and technology. The children I met on separate occasion at the same location reflected the largest untapped human resource in this country. They also felt that they “deserved” something. Unlike the children from Israel, they did not live in the shadows of war. Their war was one waged against poverty and hopelessness. They asked for something that many other children take for granted: love.

We Deserve Love Too!, a youth-led campaign in New York City, attracted my attention with the stories of teenagers who fell through societal cracks and still held out hope of finding a home. One teenager described living in the home of adoptive parents for years before being returned to the foster care system. Thanks to finding loving parents, he was able to complete high school and was accepted at a local university. Imagine if he was there on the same day as the Israeli inventors and had been inspired by their presence. Would it have changed the course of his life or others like him?Maybe Union Square would at the very least have been place where children learn from another under the guidance of adults who truly invest and believe in their futures.