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Socioeconomic and Racial Disparities Affect Early Childhood Development

Two young children standing in front of their home

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Key Takeaways

  • Racial inequity can affect development in children as young as 5.
  • Effects of socioeconomic disparities are connected to health issues that can persist through adulthood.

Despite the official ending of segregation in the 1960s, there remains a longstanding separation of communities and inequity in community resources, resulting in Black and Latinx communities having higher poverty rates than white neighborhoods. A recent study has shown that these socioeconomic disparities can hinder development in kids as young as five.

The discrimination that results in these inequities can have a lifelong impact on health. These impacts can be physical, including heart issues such as hypertension and other chronic conditions, or through negative effects on mental health, such as increases in suicidality.

Discrimination can lead to someone existing in a constant state of adversity and fear, which exacerbates chronic conditions and can result in issues like metabolic dysregulation and immune system changes.

Dr. Nekeisha Hammond, psychologist with Hammond Psychology & Associates and author of The Practical Guide to Raising Emotionally Healthy Children says, "Discrimination can also lead to emotional and mental distress, with complications such as depression, anxiety, sleeping problems, PTSD, and many more mental health conditions."

What Did the Study Show?

The effects of these disparities have a tangible effect in individuals as early as five and have the potential to be impactful long term, well into adulthood. This study published in the October issue of Health Affairs examined the potentiality of health inequity within kindergartners by dissecting the impact of varying intersections like household income, neighborhood, and race/ethnicity. 

Dr. Nekeisha Hammond

We can close the equity gap for our children by understanding children as a whole: academically, mentally, physically, emotionally, socially, etc...Children need to be connected to better resources to bridge the gap with limitations, according to their level of development and needs.

— Dr. Nekeisha Hammond

What Is the Early Development Instrument? 

The Early Development Instrument (EDI) is an assessment of early childhood development collected through teacher reports. The assessment focuses on five areas: general knowledge and communication, emotional maturity, language and cognitive development, and physical health and well-being. The results of the assessment are derived individually, but are compiled to view the averages of children within an area.

EDI vulnerability is defined as the falling below the tenth percentile. The researchers sampled 301,792 children within the US EDI database plus Washington, D.C. alongside the census tracts from 2010 - 2017.

Researchers’ findings showed that there is a correlation between neighborhood income and health development. Utilizing this tool, researchers found that Black and Latinx children in lower income neighborhoods showcased much higher levels of vulnerability than children in higher income neighborhoods.

Hammond says, “We can close the equity gap for our children by understanding children as a whole: academically, mentally, physically, emotionally, socially, etc. Remembering there are different areas of youth development which are affected by inequities in healthcare, education, and community resources will be vital in addressing how to best help children. Children need to be connected to better resources to bridge the gap with limitations, according to their level of development and needs.”

Combating Inequities

Researchers suggest that in order for socioeconomic disparities to have lessened effects on adults, interventions during early childhood are necessary.

Hammond adds that future generations can address the health implications by teaching new models of mental and physical health education early. "Children at young ages, as early as preschool, need more education on mental health, more guidance on how to cope with stress, and better age-appropriate understanding of wellness...There are promising solutions to reduce the equity gap, but there needs to be a greater priority for mental health, particularly with policy and legislation," she says.

What This Means For You

There are several complications that can derive from socioeconomic inequality. While circumstances can often feel as though they are out of our hands, studies like this one further enforce the need for additional empathy and education for students. Encouragement and assistance for students in lower-income areas will have an impact on future generations, and both individual approaches and policy changes will benefit those from different racialized groups and marginalized communities for years to come.

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Article Sources
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