Policies that expand access to high-quality medical care and early childhood programs provide important benefits to children and families, such as improved literacy and numeracy skills and executive function at kindergarten entry and beyond. But improving the life prospects of all children and families — and building a sustainable society in which everyone thrives — may require new policy approaches that confront and dismantle the structural inequities that undermine the well-being of over-burdened families in under-resourced communities.
The evidence is clear and growing: structural, cultural, and interpersonal racism impose unique and substantial stressors on the daily lives of families raising young children of color that affect lifelong learning and health. Science is now helping to explain how this happens, which can help to identify solutions, but three points are becoming clear:
Excessive stress is a likely pathway to negative health impacts. The body responds to adversity and threat by activating the stress response, popularly known as “fight or flight.” A growing body of evidence suggests that the need to cope continuously with the burdens of structural racism and everyday discrimination can be a potent activator of the stress response, and over time it can have a significant wear-and-tear effect on children’s developing brains and other biological systems.
Chronic inflammation can disrupt the function of organ systems. When the stress response is activated, the immune system responds by sending immune cells to their “battle stations” to defend against illness and heal wounds. But persistently elevated inflammation can produce lasting changes that increase the risk of later health problems, such as obesity, diabetes, heart disease, depression and even preterm births, all of which are inextricably linked to learning.
Unhealthy environments are another likely pathway to negative health impacts. Our bodies absorb and adapt to our physical and social environment, which can affect our organs and disrupt their functioning. For example:
- Zoning regulations and civic underinvestment have concentrated air pollution, contaminated water and pesticides in neighborhoods populated predominantly by people of color with low incomes, and these exposures are associated with increased risk of poor pregnancy outcomes, increased asthma and many other health problems. Further, research points to the influences of the physical school building on student health and achievement, which disproportionately affect districts serving people of color with low incomes.
- Predominantly African American neighborhoods have less access to — and pay more for — healthy foods, which contributes to poorer nutrition and higher rates of obesity and diabetes.
- Limited open spaces and facilities for recreation, along with concerns about personal safety, can also discourage physical activity.
- The loss of supportive relationships constitutes an added burden of stress that worsens the effects of adversity on health and learning. African American families experience more deaths of loved ones throughout the course of their lives; and this was significantly worsened by the COVID-19 pandemic. Additionally, incarceration disproportionately affects African American families and negatively impacts children’s behavior, health and mental health outcomes.
How to Use Policy to Address Systemic Racism Impacting Young Children
A range of approaches to reduce the health-threatening effects of cultural racism, residential segregation and the inequitable access to economic and educational opportunities show evidence of positive impacts on child outcomes. As policymakers know, children and families don’t experience policy issues in silos, making it important to consider the myriad issues that impact learning outcomes.
- Strengthen policies that provide economic support to families. In a report commissioned by Congress, two program and policy packages stood out: the first increases housing voucher levels and Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits; the second combines a child allowance, a child support assurance program and the elimination of immigrant restrictions on benefits.
- Invest in place-based interventions. These intensive, long-term efforts to improve opportunities in a designated community are typically cross-sector, sustainable collaborations that are designed to address community-driven objectives. There are many examples of this approach, including Purpose-Built Communities and the Harlem Children’s Zone.
- Take steps to reduce cultural racism. Mitigating the effects of cultural racism on the health and development of children of color will require a range of multifaceted, cross-sectoral efforts to generate, implement and evaluate potential solutions. Building a diverse teacher workforce and addressing teachers’ implicit bias by providing professional development are two examples.
Other proposals have been less well-studied than these but deserve a closer look. For example, policies that create new economic drivers and support wealth creation through zones of opportunity and investment — especially those co-created with community leaders — are promising ideas worth considering. Understanding how these inequities act as stressors and affect child health and development offers an opportunity to consider new ideas about how communities, policies, programs and funding streams can address them to build a stronger future for us all.