AlamyA low-birth weight baby born to a woman who used crack cocaine during her pregnancy sleeps inside a hospital incubator. In the 1980s, the crack baby epidemic was hard to ignore. Television show after television show, article after article proclaimed that children born to addicts of the increasingly prevalent “crack” cocaine were all-but-guaranteed to have birth defects, including extremely low IQs and severe emotional problems. This “lost generation,” commentators emphasized, would be incapable of forming relationships or reaching full emotional maturity. They would be, in the words of Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer, condemned to “a life of certain suffering, of probable deviance, of permanent inferiority.”
A little over 20 years later, Krauthammer’s predictions have proven almost embarrassingly inaccurate. Last week, the findings of a 24-year-long study of crack babies revealed that parental use of the drug had little or no direct effect on the children. In the process of investigating the babies, however, researchers discovered another environmental problem that did, in fact, lead to problems with depression, anxiety, cognitive functioning, and a host of other issues: poverty.
In 1989, Dr. Hallam Hurt, chair of the neonatology department at Philadelphia’s Albert Einstein Medical Center, began tracking 224 near-term or full-term children who were born to crack addicts. In the ensuing years, her longitudinal study followed the children, finding that, overall, their IQs were about the same as a control group of children of non-addicted mothers. Further, the children in Hurt’s study had comparable outcomes when it came to educational and emotional development.
That having been said, Hurt’s study found that children raised in poverty — regardless of whether or not their mothers were addicted to crack — tended to have lower IQs and lower school readiness than those who weren’t raised in poverty. A big part of the problem, she argues, is environmental: Of the children in her study, “81 percent of the children had seen someone arrested; 74 percent had heard gunshots; 35 percent had seen someone get shot; and 19 percent had seen a dead body outside.” The children themselves acknowledged the effect of these events: “Those children who reported a high exposure to violence were likelier to show signs of depression and anxiety and to have lower self-esteem.”
In other words, while prenatal crack abuse may not have a major effect on children, the societal conditions in crack-ravaged communities most certainly do. As Hurt emphasized, “Given what we learned, we are invested in better understanding the effects of poverty. How can early effects be detected? Which developing systems are affected? And most important, how can findings inform interventions for our children?” Or, to put it another way, now that we understand that poverty is more dangerous for children than crack, what can we do to protect our children from its effects?