By Linda Richter and Diana Fishbein
Opinion contributors - 10/16/22
The Biden administration recently introduced a plan to end hunger and improve nutrition in the United States by 2030 via a range of initiatives, including working with the private sector to enhance access to healthy food, making the child tax credit permanent, expanding the food stamps program and investing in nutrition research. This comes at a time when 13.5 million U.S. households are considered food insecure, meaning they have difficulty providing enough food for their family.
Reducing family food insecurity and child hunger is clearly not only a worthy goal in its own right but could also have profound effects on one of the largest preventable threats to public health that the United States faces — the opioid crisis.
Research and practical experience over the past few years have demonstrated that children who grow up in households where they face adverse experiences or financial insecurity are at greater risk of developing a range of physical and mental health problems, including substance use and addiction as they get older.
Children born into poverty or financially unstable households are more likely to have caregivers who are stressed, have fewer social supports, and struggle with mental health disorders and addiction. Caregiver challenges often translate into inadequate prenatal and postnatal nourishment that, in turn, can adversely affect neurodevelopment, even in infancy, leading to long-term impairments. These children also have greater odds of experiencing inappropriate or adverse parenting practices that can further disadvantage developing children and increase their risk for problems with substance use.
Poverty can physically alter a child’s brain, resulting in significant socioeconomic disparities in brain development that produce deficits in learning, memory, attention, language, emotions and self-regulation of behavior. With all the pressure we’re putting on schools now — to teach basic academic subjects and social-emotional skills and to intervene with children struggling with mental health concerns — investments in families can ease the burden on schools while improving children’s ability to meet developmental milestones and succeed in life.
Although low-income status and poverty do not invariably lead to poor parenting or parental substance use, the enormous strain that food and income insecurity puts on families, coupled with reduced access to quality and affordable health care, can increase the likelihood of mental health disorders and addiction and intergenerational transmission of these problems. That reality means interventions to reduce adverse childhood experiences and family stressors are critical targets for tackling many of the downstream problems that currently plague our nation, including skyrocketing rates of drug overdose and the spiraling youth mental health crisis.
These problems are in dire need of attention and resources. But, too often, we respond by placing short-term band-aids on the most direct and salient causes rather than tackling the root sources of the problems that plague families and prevent many young people from leading successful and fulfilling lives.
The prevailing approach to substance use prevention has been to focus on middle and high school lessons in health courses or school assembly presentations. It has become increasingly clear, however, that if we are to turn the tide on what may seem to be an intractable problem — partially due to the limited effectiveness of these strategies — we need a broader approach that includes a focus on the early years of child development. Not only would this help to disrupt the intergenerational cycle of addiction but, along the way, it would reduce youth mental illness, improve students’ academic performance and social-emotional functioning and ease the significant burden on families and schools.
While implementing policies to reduce child hunger and secure families’ income, food and housing stability might seem far removed from our current opioid crisis, child development research demonstrates that even small, powerful interventions in early childhood — such as a monthly financial supplement to low-income mothers of newborns — can profoundly shift the life course of a developing child. The recent child tax credit is credited with lifting 5.3 million people out of poverty, including 2.9 million children, in 2021 alone. Still, a recent report found that while the share of federal spending on children climbed to a historic 12 percent of the U.S. budget in FY 2022, producing remarkable declines in child poverty and hunger, the share of spending on early childhood declined by 10 percent.
Policies that help to reduce hunger, poverty and childhood adversity set the stage for healthy, well-functioning families. Secure and stable families are the key to protecting youth from substance use and other high-risk behaviors, promoting healthy development, and allowing children to cultivate a sense of meaning, purpose and hope for the future.
Our nation is finally on a good trajectory to supporting family stability and children’s well-being. Let’s not become complacent or short-sighted and lose this critical opportunity to make smart investments in our children and the future.
This piece appeared as an op-ed in The Hill on October 16th. It was written by Linda Richter and Diana Fishbein. View the article in The Hill: https://thehill.com/opinion/healthcare/3689683-ending-hunger-could-be-the-first-step-toward-ending-the-opioid-epidemic/
Linda Richter, Ph.D. is vice president of prevention research and analysis at Partnership to End Addiction in New York. Diana Fishbein, Ph.D. is a senior scientist in the Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, president of the National Prevention Science Coalition to Improve Lives, and part-time research faculty at The Pennsylvania State University.