An Ohio State Study Sheds Light on Kids Being Left Behind

University researchers analyze the development of children from low-income households in Columbus.

Chris Gaitten
An OSU study sheds light on the development of children from low-income households in Columbus.

Five years ago, Ohio State researchers set out to examine questions about resources to help low-income families in Franklin County, where about 1 in 4 children lives in poverty. Principal investigator Laura Justice, a speech language pathologist, and her colleagues followed children until the age of 4 to learn about their families’ lives, how they accessed resources and what shaped children’s language skills. 

The Kids in Columbus Study, or KICS, was completed last year in collaboration with Columbus Public Health and the Franklin County Women, Infants and Children program. The area’s WIC clinics, which provide nutritional education, food and breastfeeding support to those earning up to 185 percent of the federal poverty level, helped researchers enroll 323 pregnant women, mothers and children under 3 months old, with about 80 percent reporting a household income of less than $30,000. 

Researchers discovered that some families did well, says Justice, the executive director of OSU’s Crane Center for Early Childhood Research and Policy. Women who reported better support systems and neighborhood quality provided better parenting, and higher quality interactions with parents were helpful to children’s language development at age 2. However, even within a low-income sample, earnings still mattered: Children from homes on the lower end of the economic spectrum developed language skills more slowly. 

KICS also measured the concentration of the hormone cortisol in participants’ hair, which approximates chronic stress, and found that mothers’ cortisol levels were correlated to their children’s, says University of Cincinnati professor Randi Bates, a former OSU researcher. Though some stress is useful, toxic stress can cause kids to become hyperemotional and uncontrollable or dulled to their environment, and KICS reported that chronic stress in toddlers was associated with sleep problems. 

If social programs can reduce economic hardship, Justice says, then parents will be less stressed and therefore more responsive to their kids. Among her takeaways: Columbus is rich in resources, less so in systems to deliver them. “I think every well-resourced city is struggling with the same issue.” 

For example, WIC enrollment has declined nationwide for many reasons, says Franklin County WIC director Dawn Sweet. Participation peaked locally in 2009 at around 37,000 and has dropped by 12,000—including 2,000 last year, partly due to the pandemic. Slightly outdated tech and reduced birth rates are also factors, Sweet says, and though WIC is good at registering people, the program has struggled to retain them. 

Nicki, a mother of two, is among the eligible people not receiving WIC benefits. She once did, but she says she hasn’t been able to make her appointments because she’s working full time and living in hotels until she finds stable housing, after being forced from her rental for renovations. Nicki—an alias, to comply with academic study rules—and her 2-year-old son are enrolled in Small Talk, Justice’s next study, which is examining how poverty and toxic stress affect language disorders within the same population as KICS. 

Providing affordable, high-quality child care and improved public transportation would help remove barriers to resources for that demographic, Bates says. Justice adds that it’s important for organizations to include these people in discussions so that solutions are realistic. “As we craft ways to get our resources out there to families, we have to be sure that the right people are at the table.”  

This story is from the August 2021 issue of Columbus Monthly.