August 9, 2019

Our Works of Charity / David Bethuram

Growing up in poverty is a threat to childhood development

David Bethuram

Growing up in poverty is one of the greatest threats to healthy childhood development. Poverty and financial stress can impede children’s cognitive development and their ability to learn. It can contribute to behavioral, social and emotional problems and poor health. In Indiana, there are 103,000 children age 5 and younger that live in poverty (2019 Indiana Kids Count Database). For these families facing day-to-day struggles, finding and accessing high quality health care and education for their children can be a constant challenge.

Young children impacted by poverty are among the most vulnerable people in the regions which Catholic Charities serve. They’re more likely to have been born prematurely or have low birth weight and have unidentified behavior or developmental problems. They’re also more likely to have a variety of health issues like untreated cavities that can affect their development and chances for success in school.

The first few weeks, months and years of a child’s life are the most critical—and when children are most vulnerable. The developmental milestones and early learning experiences children have before age 5 will shape their health and well‑being as they grow. And children who miss out on these milestones are often unable to catch up.

Our work in this area aims to get families the care, information and tools they need so their kids are physically, socially and emotionally healthy when they enter kindergarten—an important stepping stone toward a bright and healthy future.

Here are some of the challenges low‑income children face when they are in school:

  • Lack of preparation: Fewer low‑income children have access to quality early childhood education, so they enter kindergarten lacking basic skills such as letter recognition and counting skills.
  • Vocabulary: Study after study shows low-income children enter school having heard 30 million fewer words spoken than their middle-class peers. A limited vocabulary makes it difficult to learn to read when children have never been exposed to the words.
  • Poor nutrition: Children sometimes come to school hungry, which makes it difficult to concentrate. Many schools are able to combat that by offering free breakfast and lunch.
  • Lack of medical care: Low-income children may not see the doctor that often, so vision problems, dental problems and mental health issues do not get addressed as quickly and make it harder for children to learn.
  • High mobility: Children of poor families tend to move frequently, which disrupts their education. When they move from one school to another there is a lack of continuity, and they may miss learning entire concepts.
  • Dysfunctional families: Families of low-income children often have a myriad of issues: that is, they come home to a chaotic rather than calm home, often with the additional strain of possibly handling adult problems. They may have little space or supplies to do homework.
  • Lack of enrichment: Low-income children often do not get the outside enrichment opportunities their peers have such as music, dance, art or sports lessons and trips to museums, historical sites and other places.

Our goal at Catholic Charities is to eliminate generational poverty. To do so will elevate education, strengthen family bonds and provide low-income families access to health care and community resources. In doing so, poor families increase their understanding and knowledge of health and wellness habits; they are engaged in their community and school; and reading is encouraged in the home, which will strengthen their child’s language skills.

Catholic Charities and parish education programs all need volunteers to support the above goals and help provide all children with the opportunity to have a healthy start before they enter kindergarten.

(David Bethuram is executive director of the archdiocesan Secretariat for Catholic Charities. E-mail him at

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