• 04.01.16

Connecting The Dots Between Childhood Struggles And Future Success

The lasting effects of growing up poor.

Connecting The Dots Between Childhood Struggles And Future Success
Photo: Flickr user Doug Geisler

These factors that contribute to our success do not work in isolation but are interrelated. Traumatic experiences in our youth have rippling effects on health and education. Interestingly, when the federal government set up departments and cabinet level officials to oversee our nation’s efforts in these areas, they were at first combined. In 1971, under President Nixon, the Department of Health, Education and Human Services was created.


These areas remained integrated until 1979, when they were divided into the Department of Health & Human Services and Department of Education. When a country expands both in its size and the basic services it provides, it’s often necessary to reorganize in order to better manage growing needs. It’s logical but eventually can lead to silos that fail to coordinate efforts. The result? Increased bureaucracy and inefficient delivery of services to those who need them. As a leader of a United Way in Connecticut once summed up for me, “Being poor is a full-time job.”

Beyond the inconvenience, there are more serious repercussions of uncoordinated social support for our children. When support comes in isolated doses, someone “can do his job” without addressing the underlying issue. Irwin Redlener, a pediatrician by training and founder of the organization Children’s Health Fund, once told me a harrowing tale of a young boy he met many years before. The boy had been labeled “special needs,” fell behind in school, and had a major speech impediment. Clearly an education problem, right? Wrong. This boy was born with an unformed palette in his mouth, making it almost impossible to learn how to speak and communicate well. In retracing how a boy could grow to the age of 8 without having, what is a relatively minor, medical procedure to correct this issue, Redlener tracked down his medical records–largely through emergency room visits as the boy’s family did not have health insurance. Doctor after doctor would treat him for “urgent” needs like the flu or ear infections. And each doctor would make a simple notation regarding needing to repair the palette–but never doing so. So the boy would leave the hospital, palette still in tatters, speech still poor, still falling behind in school and labeled incapable of learning. No one is connecting the dots. No one is helping him really move forward.

Even when a kid does “make it,” say he is in the minority. He works hard to overcome his challenges and has a protective parent who helps him navigate the uncertainty and danger of their surroundings. When he needs care, he gets the right support at the right time. Someone connects the dots. He grows up and becomes the first in his family to go to college. The future is bright. He achieved the dream, right? Well, not quite. New research from Gregory Miller and Edith Chen of Northwestern University and Gene Brody from the Center for Family Research at the University of Georgia shows that this climb exacts an unseen toll.

Their research tracked resilient kids who seemed like they were on their way to making it. They realized that, while these kids were seeing success in some areas like education and staying out of trouble, their health suffered as a result. Higher rates of obesity, higher blood pressure and higher levels of stress hormones were found, a lasting legacy of their struggles.

About the author

Bob McKinnon is Founder of GALEWiLL Design--a for-purpose company that designs social change programs, communications, advocacy and action. By partnering with changemakers within government, foundations, non-profits and corporations, they are helping address many of the world's most pressing issues.