Economic Disparities Drive Long-Lasting Challenges for American Children, Currie Testifies

Aug 06 2021
By Riis L. Williams
Source Princeton School of Public and International Affairs

Economic disparities affect the health, wellness, and success of children even before they are born. Expanding social welfare programs could help to break this cycle.

The U.S. House Select Committee on Economic Disparity and Fairness in Growth held its first hearing on July 29. Among the witnesses was Janet Currie, Henry Putnam Professor of Economics and Public Affairs at Princeton University’s School of Public and International Affairs, who focused her remarks on children.

Janet Currie and Nancy Pelosi
Janet Currie with Nancy Pelosi. (Photo courtesy of Currie)

“[Economic disparities] are pervasive, but they are also preventable,” Currie said in her opening statement. She has been studying the harmful effects of economic disparities on children for 30 years and is the co-director of Princeton’s School of Public and International Affairs’ Center for Health and Wellbeing.

Currie explained that in pregnant women anxiety caused by economic disparities can affect their unborn children. Stressful circumstances like financial instability or exposure to violence lead to a higher probability that children are born underweight. In turn, underweight children are more likely to develop future health problems like ADHD, asthma, or depression, compared to children of normal birth weight.

In her testimony, Currie emphasized that people of color are disproportionately and severely impacted by poor economic factors. “Infant mortality among Black infants remains more than twice as high as among White infants,” she said. “Differences in asthma rates between Black and White children can be entirely explained by the combination of a higher incidence of low birth weight and zip code of residence.”

Economic disparity has continuing impacts on children as they grow older. Disadvantaged children, particularly those of color, are less likely to have access to safe and healthy environments and a quality education. In 2019, the National Assessment of Educational Progress saw a 25-point gap between Black and White children’s fourth grade math assessment scores, Currie noted.

Still, Currie recognized that great efforts have been made to mitigate the effects economic disparities have on children in the United States. The expansion of Medicaid coverage to pregnant women and children, Head Start and other public early childhood education programs, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, and other child nutrition programs have improved the health and wellness of children while increasing high school graduation rates. Young adults who benefitted from these programs as children are less likely to have disabilities, more likely to be employed, and have higher earnings as a result.

“Gaps in academic achievement have steadily declined over the past 30 years. Our investments in children have been shown to have the largest economic returns among social programs,” Currie said.

At the end of her testimony, Currie stressed that these gains must be maintained, and momentum cannot be lost. Looking forward, she hopes that the new refundable child tax credit will be made permanent, for a federal paid leave policy, and for the expansion of social welfare programs that have been proven to reduce poverty, improve maternal mental health, increase students’ academic test scores, reduce disability and increase employment and earnings.  “Adopting these measures would give American children and families the benefits that families in competing nations now enjoy and would allow every child a chance to realize the American Dream,” she concluded.

In addition to Currie, other researchers at SPIA are working on issues related to education, children, and inequality. Their research is often used to inform policymaking in the U.S.

Other witnesses at the hearing included Jason Furman of the Harvard Kennedy School; Joi Chaney of J.O.I. Strategies; James Galbraith of University of Texas Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs, and Shailly Barnes of the Kairos Center.

View the full hearing, “The Nature and Consequences of American Economic Disparity,” and Currie’s testimony.