The Recession's Long-Term Impact on Black Kids
Our children may be most vulnerable to damage from the economic downturn.
Obesity is certainly a critical health issue -- especially for black children, 20 percent of whom are considered obese -- but singling it out may divert attention from other important problems. "Focusing on a child's weight status misses the big picture of what's really happening with their health," says Diana Becker Cutts, M.D., a pediatrician at Hennepin County Medical Center in Minnesota and a researcher for Children's HealthWatch. "Childhood obesity numbers have been used as a very effective tool for people who are against public food-assistance programs," she says. "Yet there's very good research that shows that families who get food stamps eat a higher-quality diet," which translates into lower rates of obesity and better health.
Medical insurance also "does not ensure that a child's basic health needs are met," she adds. "Asthma is very high among poor children [the rate is 15 percent for black children -- three times that of white kids]. Because they have insurance, I can prescribe medications to relax their lungs, but if their home environment is filled with allergens or their parents can't afford to fill their prescriptions, insurance will not solve the problem," says Becker Cutts. "We can't really look at the impact of the recession and isolate just one hardship."
"The CWI also does not look at a range of mental health issues," Poussaint says, even though African-American children are overrepresented in situations that raise the risk of mental health problems -- such as foster care -- but less likely to have access to counseling, according to the NCCP.
The Need for Anchors in the Community
One other deeply disturbing trend highlighted in the CWI is the increasing alienation of young people who see no clear path to economic advancement. African-American kids -- who, the CWI reports, will experience an unemployment rate near 40 percent -- are particularly vulnerable. "It starts with the cuts we are seeing in prekindergarten programs around the country and extends to adolescents," Land says. "We are picking up increases in detached youth, teens who are not enrolled in school or employed. Without these social bonds, we may see upticks in violence and risky behaviors."
There was one bright spot in the CWI data: the role of the church in black communities. "We found that African-American children with higher levels of involvement in religious institutions were better off emotionally. [That involvement] served as a buffer against depression," says Land, underscoring what may be the most important message to be gathered from the CWI.
"The report should be a rallying cry to people who may be able to mentor children, help support community health programs, boys' and girls' clubs, and other activities," Poussaint says, "as well as a [reason] to model positive examples in the community, such as single parents who do a wonderful job raising their children. Even in these times, engaging kids in constructive activities and simply spending time with them can make a difference." Social connectedness, nurtured by families and community organizations, is the one type of wealth we can always give our children to sustain them through tough economic times.
Sheree Crute is a writer and editor based in Brooklyn, N.Y.