Young children and their parents are healthier when they are able to afford basic needs, such as food, shelter, utilities, medical care, prescription medications and childcare, according to a series of reports across the United States.

When these needs are met, children are more likely to have good overall health and positive developmental outcomes, and mothers are more likely to enjoy better mental health.

The findings emphasize the need for policymakers to improve access to and effectiveness of programs that enable all low-income families to afford basic needs.

The study surveyed more than 18,000 families of children under age 4 who visited the emergency departments and primary care clinics at urban hospitals in Baltimore, Boston, Minneapolis, Philadelphia, and Little Rock.

The researchers developed a composite measure of hardships that included a family’s ability to afford food, utilities, and health care, and maintain stable housing. All hardships described in the study had previously been linked to poor child and caregiver health.

This study, however, looked at the differences between children living in hardship-free families versus those in families with any or multiple hardships.

In all cities, living in a hardship-free family was linked to good overall health for children and caregivers, positive developmental outcomes for young children, and positive mental health among mothers.

Nearly half of families interviewed at Hennepin County Medical Center in Minneapolis reported that they were hardship-free. At Boston Medical Center, only about one quarter of the families surveyed reported zero hardships, which may be due to higher housing costs.

“This report provides a snapshot on our progress to ensure every family can easily afford their bills and allow children to reach their potential, and gives us a goal to ensure all children live in hardship free families in the future,” said Dr. Megan Sandel, co-lead principal investigator at Children’s HealthWatch and a pediatrician at Boston Medical Center.

The research also looked at the link between child care constraints, when parents are unable to work or attend school because of an inability to afford childcare, and hardships. In each city, parents who reported being able to access affordable childcare were more likely to be hardship free.

“High quality, affordable child care, available from infancy, is essential to families’ well-being,” says Dr. Diana Cutts, co-lead principal investigator at Children’s HealthWatch and chief of pediatrics at Hennepin County Medical Center.

Each report recommends state and local policy solutions to improve the health of children. The authors advocate for implementing policies to raise wages, along with ensuring access to programs that support low-income families being able to meet basic needs, such as food and housing security and medical care.

The authors also suggest screening for hardships in health care settings and connecting patients and their families to resources that promote health.

Source: Boston Medical Center