Poverty is one of the most pervasive conditions associated with children with special needs. Already generally recognized as one of leading factors correlated with a huge number of social issues, poverty is in some ways an umbrella so large that it leads to ask whether it is a cause or an effect. As it relates to the topic, however, we can say definitively that poverty is an adequate way to summarize the existence of a huge number of contributing factors that make a family less likely to be able to adequately support a child with special needs.
Poverty as a Causal Factor
Poverty — the lack of adequate money — on the part of the parent(s) can directly contribute to the birth of a special needs child through a huge number of direct physical stressors, including (but not limited to):
• Poor Nutrition: An inadequately-fed fetus is likely to be born prematurely or at a low birth weight, both of which are definitively correlated with special-needs diagnoses.
• Neglect: Poor parents are significantly more likely to neglect their children simply as a matter of necessity, leaving them alone or with inadequate care so that they can pursue opportunities to pay the bills.
• Abuse: Poor parents are also significantly more likely to actively abuse their infants, being unable to cope with the stress of caring for a child while struggling with money and/or being addicted to mood- or mind-altering drugs that cause them to act abusively.
• Exposure: Obviously, homelessness or inadequate shelter is much more commonplace for poor parents, both of which can cause developmental problems in infants.
• Disease: Inadequate healthcare is one of the hallmarks of modern poverty; a child of poor parents is significantly more likely to have the earliest signs of a disease go unrecognized — or recognized and untreated — until the opportunity for prevention has passed.
In short, families that suffer from chronic poverty are significantly more likely to have children with special needs — and are also the least likely to be able to stand up to the stress of raising a child with special needs.
Single Parentage, 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 unwed mothers has skyrocketed to 38%, and a massive 32% of single-parent children live below the poverty line. That averages out to 22% of all American children being ‘born poor’ — and thus, at a significantly higher risk of being born with special needs, as described above.
In short, if we intend to seek out a policy solution to the increasing number of special needs children overwhelming our schools, there is an obvious area to begin: with the elimination of poverty. Recent efforts in Utah as well as significant number of experiments a few decades ago across Canada and the US have shown that we have the resources we need to do so — just not the political will.
The Costs of Special Needs Children
According to a report entitled Expensive Children in Poor Families, of 2,000 interviewed families accepting welfare:
• 45% reported that they had spent out-of-pocket money for specialized clothes, foods, transportation, medicine, healthcare, or child care for their child(ren). The average cost for families reporting such costs: $143 in the previous month. These children weren’t necessarily considered to have special needs, but the families did specify “specialized” goods or services, implying that the generic offers weren’t appropriate for their children.
• The average family supporting at least one moderately-or-severely disabled child had to spend enough time and effort supporting the child that they lost out on an average of $80 of working opportunity each month.
• Unless a family received SSI disability benefits for their child, out-of-pocket expenses that would otherwise have been covered by SSI reduced the family’s total effective income such that 12% of families that would otherwise have been considered OK were driven below the poverty level.
The Effects of Special Needs Children on Public Assistance
While public assistance exists that is specifically targeted toward the families of children with special needs, this section deals only with non-targeted public assistance of the kind that is generally available to families without such children. The same report found that:
• Families were more likely to receive assistance if they had a child with special needs, and
• That likelihood increased with each additional special-needs child, and
• Also increased with the severity of the disability each child dealt with.
In other words, precisely like one might intuitively predict, the more challenging a given set of children is to deal with in terms of medical or social need, the more likely it is that the family supporting that child will be receiving non-targeted public assistance. Or, written more succinctly, having children with special needs causes families to qualify for and seek out public assistance.
Furthermore, the study found that there were only two significant fates for families of children with special needs who went on welfare: they either left welfare but began receiving SSI disability, or they stayed on welfare. The effect of having a severely disabled child was equivalent in public-assistance dependence twice as strong as the effect of the family losing one parent — implying that the cost of a severely disabled child is greater than the income accrued by one parent by a significant amount.
We’ve seen now how poverty is a significant cause of special needs in children born into poverty families, and how having one or more children with special needs causes families to descend into poverty. The vicious cycle here should be immediately apparent: being poor makes it more likely that you’ll have a child with special needs, which in turn makes it more likely that you’ll remain poor for the foreseeable future. This is a problem in desperate need of a solution.