Your young child’s brain grows at an astonishing rate. During the first year of life, your child’s brain develops rapidly – creating more than 1 million neural connections per second – as your baby absorbs sensory information from seeing, feeling, and hearing the world around them.
And your child’s earliest learning activities grow those neural connections even more and create the foundation for social and emotional development, speech and language learning, and communication skills that start their journey into adulthood.
By the time your child is three years old, their brain has expanded to 80 percent of its adult volume, and complex cognitive abilities surface. This is why your child’s early education is so vital to their later development and success. The social and cognitive development in the first three years of your child’s life form the foundation for lifelong learning, health, and well-being.
But what happens if a child grows up with economic instability, with precarious housing or in poverty? In this article, we will explore how housing, economic conditions, and child care impact a baby and form those important foundational factors that direct that child for life.
Healthy growth and development during infancy are directly related to the living environment. This means that a safe, nurturing home life leads to success on many levels. Housing conditions, security, safety, and exposure to environmental conditions all contribute to the health and development of a child.
But a housing shortage across the United States exists and families with children before March 2020 had more housing instability than families without children. And in 2020, over half of the families with children that were homeless at some point during the year were black.
Raising young children in an environment of housing instability or homelessness harms the development, health, and well-being of those children. Research shows many negative outcomes to children from housing instability, ranging from poor child health and low birth weight to developmental issues. Studies also indicate that infants in families going through homelessness have a greater risk of developing serious health issues such as low weight and respiratory problems, compared to infants in stable home environments.
One solution to family housing instability is the Bringing Families Home program. This California project offers financial assistance and housing-related services to low-income families. Over 1,200 families have found permanent, long-term housing through the program since 2016.
Oregon state officials passed bills in 2021 to help unhoused families and protect renters by increasing access to affordable housing. The plan includes $550 million for new and existing affordable housing and emergency shelter development. Similar programs in other states could also prove beneficial.
Another foundation for family health and well-being is economic stability. Economic stability is key to housing and food security and a sense of safety. Economic stability is also connected to systemic racism and racial wealth gaps: children of color have a higher risk of being born into poverty and as a result, a greater chance of food insecurity and having to cope with associated hardships into adulthood.
One key factor impacting economic stability for all families is the wage gap that still exists between genders. Men, on average, continue to earn far more than women, which means single mothers have a great disadvantage, and the wage gap between white men and black women is the largest gap that exists.
The living conditions for a child during infancy and toddlerhood have an enormous impact on that child’s health and development. And early years’ health and development have a life-long impact on the healthcare system, and judicial and social services later in life.
However, federal funding as part of the pandemic relief program has addressed some of these issues and expanded social service programs. Studies have also indicated that child poverty levels have dipped, setting a record. It went from 9.7 percent in 2020 down to just 5.2 percent in 2021. Experts suggest the drop is partly due to Child Tax Credit and food benefit program expansion.
Care options for children in the United States span the spectrum. However, many hurdles exist in securing a seat for any given child. Issues such as a lack of child care services to cost create difficulty for working parents. The pandemic-related school closures kept children home and affected work-from-home situations for many working parents. The isolation, social distancing, and other pandemic protocols all impacted the health and well-being of many children. Child care providers are still dealing with this while juggling teaching duties and maintaining a safe and healthy learning environment.
Although there is financial assistance available for families struggling with meeting their needs and affording child care, only 4.2 percent of families that qualify receive the funding. The main reason so many eligible families have not been able to take the monetary support is supply.
Statistics show that 75 percent of toddlers in center-based care and 93 percent in home-based care are on the receiving end of less-than-good quality child care. Many families across the country live in what has been termed child care deserts – a community, or region, that either has no child care or is underserved.
Child care providers have also had it rough in recent years. While the sector has struggled for some time, the pandemic hit the industry hard. Capacity limits, lockdowns, closures, and various protocols all impacted child care in various ways. Children who used to attend fun, learning programs with others their age now found themselves either without child care or at home being cared for by a babysitter, nanny, traveling teacher, or parent splitting time between work and child care. There was no consistency and that hurt the health, development, and well-being of the children.
For today’s children to grow into productive members of society, they need the right balance of stimulus. As their brains develop in the first years of life, they require quality teaching to assist with their health and well-being. Environmental conditions such as housing, economic stability, and child care all contribute to the development of a young child. Without consistency and balance, issues may arise later in life that can be traced back to the early years of learning. This is why it is so important to ensure our children receive what they need early in life to benefit them later.
Sandra Chiu works as Director at LadyBug & Friends Daycare and Preschool.