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Poor Get Poorer But Babies Get Healthier, Thanks To Help For Moms

Patricia Wornum,right, is a 'home visitor' with Healthy Families. Every two weeks she check in with Keisha Harrison and her daughter, Cassidy, in their Dorchester home. (Gabrielle Emanuel/WBUR)

Patricia Wornum,right, is a ‘home visitor’ with Healthy Families. Every two weeks she check in with Keisha Harrison and her daughter, Cassidy, in their Dorchester home. (Gabrielle Emanuel/WBUR)

In elephant-print pajamas, 21-month-old Cassidy nuzzles her head into her mother’s lap and then pops up, grabs a ballpoint pen, and starts scribbling. Her squiggles decorate an important piece of paper; it contains a checklist of all the things her mother does for Cassidy, from getting her shots to daily reading aloud.

Cassidy and her mother, Keisha Harrison, are in their Dorchester living room with Patricia Wornum, a “home visitor” with Healthy Families Massachusetts. On the couch, Wornum glances at the decorated checklist and, in her perpetually upbeat manner, asks: “Any papers back from housing?”

Harrison shakes her head. She hasn’t heard anything about her various applications for subsidized public housing. She and Cassidy are staying with her mom — at age 20, she has aged out of a teen shelter — so Harrison is worried they’ve lost their spot on the housing waiting list. Wornum immediately makes a plan to figure out what’s going on. “You got this!” she says.

Wornum and over a hundred other home visitors in Massachusetts are trying to combat a known phenomenon: If you are born to a poor mother, that overwhelmingly raises the chances that you will grow up to be poor. The odds are stacked against you in several ways: Poverty can mean stress and anxiety, poor nutrition and environmental toxins, higher risks of obesity and heart disease. An entire issue of the journal Science on “The Science of Inequality” this month rounded up some of that bad news.

But it also shared what Janet Currie, an economics professor at Princeton, calls a “bright spot” — though inequality has been rising, the health of newborns born into the poorest families has been improving.  TWEET The conclusion: Public policies can make a difference and improve a child’s chance of success. The “Science” article she co-authored looks at which policies are most effective, and found many that work, from early education to family planning services. Home visiting programs like Wornum’s appear to work particularly well.

“You often just hear about how things are getting worse,” Currie says. “The unfortunate consequence of that is that people are left with the impression that nothing works. We wanted to point out that there are programs that work, that they do make a difference.”

What The Statistics Say

Keisha Harrison was in high school when she found out she was pregnant. She remembers it as a clarifying moment.

“Before I was pregnant I really didn’t think I was going to graduate,” says Harrison. “And then once I got pregnant, I just kicked everything into high gear.” Continue reading