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Poverty and Children With Special Needs
Poverty is one of the most widespread conditions related to children with special needs. Already generally recognized as one of the leading factors correlated with a large number of social issues, poverty is in some ways an umbrella so large that the question arises as to whether it is a cause or an effect. However, when it comes to the topic, we can safely say that poverty is an adequate way to summarize the existence of a huge number of factors that contribute to reducing the likelihood that a family will be able to adequately support a child with special needs.
Poverty as a causal factor
Poverty — the lack of adequate money — by the parent(s) can directly contribute to the birth of a child with special needs through a myriad of direct physical stressors, including (but not limited to):
• Poor nutrition: an inadequately nourished fetus is likely to be born prematurely or with a low birth weight, which is definitely associated with a diagnosis of special needs.
• Neglect: Poor parents are significantly more likely to neglect their children out of necessity, leaving them alone or with inadequate care so they can look for ways to pay the bills.
• Abuse: poor parents are also significantly more likely to actively abuse their babies, as they are unable to cope with the stress of caring for a child while struggling with money and/or are addicted to mood or mind-altering drugs that cause them to they seem offensive.
• Exposure: Clearly, homelessness or inadequate shelter are much more common for poor parents, both of which can cause developmental problems in infants.
• Illness: Inadequate health care is one of the hallmarks of modern poverty; a child of poor parents is significantly more likely to have the earliest signs of illness go unrecognized — or recognized and untreated — until the opportunity for prevention has passed.
In short, families suffering from chronic poverty are significantly more likely to have children with special needs — and also the least likely to be able to cope with the stress of raising a child with special needs.
Single parenthood, poverty and special needs
A significant 8% of children born to two-parent families live at or below the federal poverty level. That statistic alone is grim enough – but it’s important to note that over the past few decades, the percentage of children born to unmarried mothers has skyrocketed to 38%, and a whopping 32% of children of single parents live below the poverty line. That averages out to 22% of all American children who are ‘born poor’ – and therefore at significantly higher risk of being born with special needs, as described above.
In short, if we’re going to look for a policy solution to the growing number of children with special needs flooding our schools, there’s an obvious area to start: eliminating poverty. Recent efforts in Utah, as well as a significant number of experiments decades ago across Canada and the US, have shown that we have the resources we need to do this – just not the political will.
Costs of children with special needs
According to the report entitled Expensive Children in Poor Families, of the 2,000 families interviewed who receive social assistance:
• 45% reported spending money from their pocket money on specialized clothing, food, transportation, medicine, health care or childcare for their children. Average cost for families reporting such expenses: $143 in the previous month. These children were not necessarily considered to have special needs, but families specified “specialised” products or services, implying that generic offerings were not appropriate for their children.
• The average family supporting at least one child with a moderate or severe disability had to spend enough time and effort supporting the child that they lost an average of $80 in work opportunities each month.
• Unless a family was receiving SSI disability benefits for their child, out-of-pocket expenses that would otherwise be covered by SSI reduced the family’s total effective income so that 12% of families that would otherwise be considered well off were brought below the poverty line.
Effects of children with special needs on public assistance
Although there is public assistance specifically targeted at families of children with special needs, this section deals only with non-targeted public assistance of the kind generally available to families without such children. The same report found that:
• Families are more likely to receive help if they have a child with special needs, i
• That probability increased with each additional child with special needs, i
• It also increases with the severity of the disability that each child faces.
In other words, just as one might intuitively predict, the more challenging it is for a particular set of children to face medical or social needs, the more likely the family supporting that child will receive untargeted public assistance. Or, more succinctly written, having children with special needs causes families to qualify for and seek public assistance.
Furthermore, the study found that there were only two significant fates for families of children with special needs who went on welfare: either they left welfare but began receiving SSI disability, or they remained on welfare. The effect of having a child with a severe disability was equivalent to public assistance dependency twice as strong as the effect of a family losing one parent — implying that the costs of having a child with a severe disability exceed the income earned by one parent by a significant amount.
We have now seen how poverty is a significant cause of special needs in children born into poor families and how having one or more children with special needs causes families to fall into poverty. The vicious circle here should be immediately apparent: if you are poor, you are more likely to have a child with special needs, which in turn makes it more likely that you will remain poor for the foreseeable future. This is a problem that desperately needs a solution.
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