Posted by: acbuildingblocks | March 21, 2011

The Effects of Poverty on the Blood, the Brain, and the Body

Seven thousand infants are born into poverty each year in Alameda County – nearly 1/3 of our county’s births.

This was the call to action for the Alameda County Life Course Initiative. Our sense of urgency grew as we learned more about the impacts of social inequities early in life on lifetime health.

The Winter 2011 issue of Pathways magazine (Stanford Center for the Study of Poverty and Inequality) highlights the research underlying our initiative. It seems to have been written with our mission statement in mind! You can read the full magazine, which contains three articles on how poverty gets under the skin, on this website.

I was especially struck by Jack Shonkoff’s article, Building a Foundation for Prosperity on the Science of Early Childhood Development. Dr. Shonkoff (Harvard Center on the Developing Child) will be featured in an upcoming webinar, What Shapes Health, on March 24. You can register here.

Dr. Shonkoff reminds us that because we have a new body of research to guide us in creating new policies and practices, the time is ripe for innovation and change:

“We now know more than ever before about how young children learn and  . . . we also have greater insights into how early adversity can produce disruptive physiological effects on the developing brain, cardiovascular system, and immune system, all of which can have lifelong impacts on both educational achievement and health.

“These rapidly moving scientific frontiers offer unprecedented opportunities to catalyze a new era in early childhood policy and practice guided by science. This science-based future must be driven by leadership that combines a strong sense of civic responsibility, an informed understanding of the positive returns that can be generated by wise investment, and a willingness to explore new ideas.”

Dr. Shonkoff describes two paths for change, and uncannily seems to describe our initiative and its two arms – one focused internally on ACPHD staff and services, and the other the Building Blocks Collaborative of multi-sector partners. He even uses the words “building blocks”!

“One path . . . requires enhanced staff development, increased quality improvement, appropriate measures of accountability, and expanded funding to serve more children and families.

“The second path heads into less charted territory, yet its purpose is deeply compelling – to create the building blocks for a new mindset that promotes innovation, invites experimentation, and leverages the frontiers of both the biological and social sciences into transformational changes in policy and practice.”

And one last tidbit from Dr. Shonkoff reminds us that we need dramatic change. This is refreshing because sometimes the focus on funding “evidence-based practice” seems to be missing the forest for the trees. We might not have the evidence just yet:

“The challenge for informed policymaking is to focus less attention on competing interpretations of program evaluation data that demonstrate statistically significant but relatively modest impacts and to direct more investment toward generating and testing new ideas about how to achieve more dramatic improvements in life outcomes, particularly for those whose needs are not being met.”

Wouldn’t it be great to share our work so far with Dr. Shonkoff – sounds like we really see eye to eye!

This serves as a great reminder for the BBC and all its members – we are pioneers applying this science to better life in Alameda County; we are all leaders in uncharted territory.

Any thoughts?

–Bina (FYI, I’m back in April)



  1. Is he reading our mind?! It is both uncanny and wonderful to see the overlap of ideas.

  2. I think that is important to work to improve the health and well-being of people by mitigating the harmful effects of poverty.

    However, we also need to start working against the overwhelming forces that seem to be pushing people further into poverty.

    I saw this night:

    “Wells Fargo CEO Stumpf Says U.S. Limit on Debit-Card Fees ‘Make No Sense’”

    “Wells Fargo & Co. (WFC) Chief Executive Officer John Stumpf said limits on fees charged to merchants for debit-card transactions “make no sense” and distort free- market economics.”

    “What’s next?” Stumpf, 57, wrote in his annual letter to shareholders of the San Francisco-based bank. “Will the government require car dealers to sell a new vehicle for $5,000 or grocers a gallon of milk for 50 cents?”

    Get that? He’s complaining about not being able to charge people high fees for using their debit cards. Whatever fee he wants.

    This is coming from a man who made more than $19 million last year, who works for a company that made almost $4 billion last year. Not to mention the banking industry’s overall complicity in our ‘economic downturn’ that has hurt so many in the US.

    I see this as being an assault upon the poor.

    We need to use the lens of social justice to frame our arguments to ‘combat’ proposals such as these to prevent the most vulnerable among us from falling farther down the economic ladder.

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