We are the most unequal society in the world," said Martha Livingston, a United University Professions member, professor and chair of the public health department at SUNY College at Old Westbury. She spoke to health care professionals at NYSUT's Professional Issues Forum on Health Care.
In America, Livingston said, the rich live about 15 years longer than the poor. Families in poverty sometimes live in environmentally toxic neighborhoods, and in chronic stress, she said. They may also live in what is called a "food desert" where few, if any, healthy food options can be found.
"When one looks at inequality between the wealthy and the poor, there is no need to look past statistics with regard to mortality rates," said NYSUT Vice President Paul Pecorale, who oversees health care issues for the union. "In a country that is one of the richest, this is egregious."
Newburgh school psychologist Kelly Caci said 75 percent of the 11,000 students in her district are considered financially disadvantaged. Twenty students in her elementary school alone are homeless.
"Poverty is one of the greatest impacts on a child's success," she said. "We can make a difference."
Medical research reveals the neurological impacts of poverty, and the physical differences between the brains of rich and poor children. Extreme poverty can slow the growth rate of the hippocampus, which regulates learning, emotions and stress regulation; and shrink the prefrontal cortex, which coordinates perception, impulse and motor control.
Children who live in poverty have less time for discovery, and spend more time struggling to survive. Educators can remediate some of the effects of poverty.
"We can help expose them to rich learning environments," Caci said. "We can help build their vocabulary." By age 4, a poor child has heard 13 million words, while an upper-income child has heard 46 million.
School field trips give students the chance to experience other environments, though it's important they are free to students and are not held back as a punishment.
Caci suggests asking students, ‘Do you need a hug today?' "We've seen a huge change in children just by that little act ... having someone who they know cares about them."
Modeling polite behavior helps students develop good habits, too. When a student bursts into Caci's office with a demand, she smiles and says, "Hi, how are you?" to show better social interaction skills.
Students also thrive when they are allowed to spend recess outside to run around and release energy in a safe environment, she said. Students can also be energized by being asked to mentor a younger child, giving them stature and an important role in school.
These practices can be augmented by addressing basic student needs.
Newburgh TA member Allison Greenebaum coordinates a food backpack program with the local food pantry. Members have donated mattresses for students who otherwise slept on the floor.
Like many others, Barbara Bertholf, school nurse and member of the Tri-Valley TA in Sullivan County, maintains a clothes closet in her office. Poverty manifests itself clearly in students: "Hungry. Hungry and tired. Kids are more agitated," she said.
While larger issues of income inequality, access and other poverty factors await action, educators and health care professionals continue doing their part to strengthen students.
"How can I be a force to change a lot of things for a lot of people?" Newburgh TA school nurse Nisha David asked. "I want to be a game changer."