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South African Children Raised in Poverty Are at Greater Risk for Developing Cognitive Deficits

The nation's economic crisis has deeply affected the lives of millions of South African's. Deepening poverty is inextricably linked with rising levels of homelessness and food insecurity/hunger for many South Africans and children are particularly affected by these conditions.

Studies that have followed children from birth through adulthood find a strong relationship between early childhood in poverty and an increased risk of problems later in life. Children who grow up in poverty are more likely to engage in violent crime, using illicit drugs, and develop chronic health problems. These are disturbing findings. South Africa used to be for the children. I drive around and see how many children are begging on the streets. It is clear that poverty has unfortunate implications for early brain development. What chances do those innocent children have in life?

Poverty Affects Brain Functions
Children in poverty score lower on tasks measuring memory, selective attention, impulse regulation, language skills, and other cognitive development measures than do children from more well-off families. Recent studies identify actual differences in the ways that children's brains work that correspond to family income. In poor children, the prefrontal cortex does not seem to work as efficiently as it does in middle-income children, requiring low-income children to work harder to accomplish the same tasks. These differences, in turn, mean that it is harder for poor children to solve problems and do well in school, and the differences are particularly noticeable in younger children.

Early Interventions are Effective
The good news is that young children are particularly receptive to careful interventions. Psychologists have developed evidence-based educational interventions that help to enhance children's skills (e.g., impulse management, sustained concentration) and help them catch up to the cognitive and academic performance of more affluent peers. The best of these programs include both children and their parents, and show greater returns than programs that target children alone. But where does a family find such treatment in South Africa?. The families will never get the guidance of a professional in order to help the children. It is a battle just to find a social worker to get involved in one single case. Parents are not getting the support from government or any social office. What chance do these children/families have to grow up? No help is coming it is up to us individuals who are brave enough to take up this cause and act for the future of these little ones.

My Conclusion
This means that a growing share of South African children are living in poverty, and a growing body of evidence shows that early childhood poverty undermines optimal brain development. Careful interventions, meanwhile, can help to place children on a stronger developmental pathway. Unfortunately, overall corruption and state budgets – already stretched thin – are unlikely to support expansion of high-quality early childhood interventions without vigorous public demand. South African's need to wake up and smell the coffee! Our situation is not getting better but worse. Every South African should be helping in their own communities. We cannot rely on the Government to make sure that our children have a future in this country. We are raising children who simply cannot function normally in a society already economically crippled and corrupted. I am seeing a decline in proper family structures and dynamics. It seems to me that only the wealthy are taught those fundamental values in life. The poverty figure is climbing faster every day I fear that South Africa has about 5 years before we will start seeing severe mall nutrition and ultimately deaths in the Squatter camps. We all need to stand together for our legacy our innocent babies who need our loving care, food, proper education and medical treatment. What will you do for the future of our children?

Leigh Oxley Du Preez