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Savannah Morning News Editorial: Breaking poverty’s hold

March 7, 2017 | Posted by pfisher

Posted March 4, 2017 09:25 pm

Editorial: Breaking poverty’s hold

When it comes to children living in poverty, Georgia ranks among the worst states in the country.

The latest figures show more than 600,000 youngsters — nearly one in four — growing up in households with incomes below the government poverty line, and that’s poor.

Nationally, we’re in a four-way tie for a rank of 40 out of 50 states, alongside South Carolina, Louisiana and Tennessee.

It’s worse locally. The statistics, from the Annie E. Casey Foundation, show that fully 28 percent of children in the Georgia’s First Congressional District, which includes Savannah as well as all coastal and several rural counties, were living in poverty in 2015. That’s 46,000 youngsters.

Breaking poverty’s hold on generation after generation has been the goal of countless programs. Growing up poor makes children more likely to suffer health, academic, emotional and social problems. Poverty so often breeds poverty.

It doesn’t have to be that way. New research, including an important, long-running study at the University of Georgia, offers a clue as to how to break the cycle. Not surprisingly, greater parental involvement is key. Quite surprisingly, researchers can read the difference between those with and those without such families in their brain scans, as well as in their conduct and life trajectories.

“When they live in poverty, there are changes in the structure and function of different parts of the brain,” Washington University researcher Deanna Barch said this week on Georgia Public Broadcasting’s program, On Second Thought.

So what’s encouraging about that? The research at Washington University in St. Louis and at the University of Georgia at Athens show that when adults are taught parenting skills, their youngsters behave better and achieve more. And their brains get more developed in certain areas. It’s the parenting that seems to do it.

“Some young people in adolescence who receive supportive parenting develop resilience to the consequences of poverty,” UGA’s Gene Brody told GPB. That was shown through the Washington University research and was put to work through the efforts of Dr. Brody’s team at Georgia’s Center for Family Research.

Using a program called Strong African-American Families and focusing on poor families in rural areas, SAAF offers training to parents. It teaches them how to become more involved with their youngsters, to make disciplinary practices consistent, to communicate more effectively and to create family routines at home. SAAF involves the children, too, in building stronger family relationships.

Dr. Brody’s group offered that intervention 15 years ago to the families of 59 children, all aged 11. They matched those children with 59 who did not enter the SAAF program. The researchers followed the two groups, watching the first set perform better at school than the second, getting into less trouble and avoiding drugs and other conduct that so often leads to downward spirals.

When the subjects turned 25, researchers scanned their brains and saw dramatic differences there, too. The SAAF subjects showed greater development in brain areas dealing with stress tolerance, learning and memory. Blood draws showed lower levels of stress hormones and inflammation, too.

Neither Dr. Brody nor Dr. Barch could say why this happens. But it does happen.

And if that kind of intervention in the lives of 11-year-olds is so effective, surely it could turn around the futures of children who get such help when they are infants and toddlers. It’s during those first five years after birth that the brain grows the most.

In Savannah, that’s what’s going on at Parent University through its Early Learning College. The program offers Saturday sessions to parents and their children, with hundreds participating since its inception in 2012. It helps parents with children of all ages but focuses most of its efforts on the super young where more dramatic changes in the child can occur.

The aim is enhancing the family experience in a non-judgmental, welcoming setting, says Executive Director Michael O’Neal.

Supported through private donations and grants from the city, the county and the school board, Parent University and the Early Learning College serve people who come in on their own as well as parents who’ve been ordered by a court to get help on parenting skills.

Mr. O’Neal says work has begun with the school system to find a way to measure results.

It may not be scientific to say so, but the UGA and Washington University research indicates that Parent University is doing exactly the right thing. Our hope is that with more funding it can grow and help break generational poverty for more young Savannahians. There are thousands who could use it.