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Inadequate cushion of savings tied to increased child health risks

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BALTIMORE, MD – Studies already show that family income affects a child's health. But new research being presented at the Pediatric Academic Societies (PAS) 2016 Meeting is the first to show it's not just the size of the paycheck, but also whether there's enough left after bills are paid to save for a "rainy day," that is associated with children's medical risks.

Researchers will present the study abstract, "The Impact of Family Financial Assets and Debt on Child Overall Health, Obesity, and Chronic Illness," at the PAS meeting on May 3. They examined a nationally representative group of 2,907 children and their families using data collected between 1997 and 2007 from the Panel Study on Income Dynamics, which began in 1969 as part of the Johnson administration's War on Poverty and has tracked the economic prosperity and health of American families ever since. They found that children in households having less than three months of savings to cover basic expenses in the event of financial shocks, such as a lost job, broken down car or unexpected medical bill, had substantially higher risk of obesity and chronic illnesses and worse overall health than those with more money set aside, even if the child's family was earning an adequate income.

The study is the first to look at child health in the context of what economists call "asset poverty," measuring economic strain caused by lack of ready financial resources such as savings, rather than income relative to the Federal Poverty Level alone. Lead author Adam Schickedanz, MD, a Robert Wood Johnson Clinical Scholar and clinical instructor in pediatrics at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), said this aspect of socioeconomic status is increasingly relevant, with estimates of the number of American families living in asset poverty now exceeding 40 percent–roughly double the proportion living in income poverty.

"The longer families lived paycheck-to-paycheck, the worse their children's health risk," Dr. Schickedanz said. These strong associations between wealth and child health were independent of other key factors known to influence child health, he said, such as parental income, education, race and age. In fact, the researchers found the differences in children's health tied to household wealth level were most often equal to or larger than differences associated with income or education level–the factors typically used to measure economic-related health risks facing children and families.

Compared to children in wealthier families, those living in asset poverty had 25 percent higher chance of worse overall health and each additional year in asset poverty increased the risk by 20 percent, according to the study. In addition, children in families living in asset poverty were 70 percent more likely to be obese and 25 percent more likely to have a chronic illness.

Dr. Schickedanz said the study's findings suggest that increasing families' financial stability and supporting the health of kids is about more than increasing their incomes. "It's not just about how much you make–it's about how much you can keep," he said.

"Well over a third of families have no savings at all to cover unexpected expenses, and more and more families are stressed financially in this age of mounting debt and concentration of wealth at the top of the economic spectrum," Dr. Schickedanz said. "Between the growing costs of housing, child care, and other basic expenses, families aren't left with much at the end of the month," he said, adding that he often sees the toll this takes on families and children he cares for as a pediatrician.

"When families are living on the financial edge without any economic cushion to fall back on," he said, "it's no surprise they find it hard to invest in healthy foods, a spot in a youth sports league, or a college savings account–all of which can have lifelong implications for the health of their kids."

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The research was supported by The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the National Institutes of Health (National Institute of Child Health and Human Development) and the UCLA Children's Discovery and Innovation Institute.

Dr. Schickedanz will present the abstract at 12:45 p.m. Tuesday, May 3 in room 343 of the Baltimore Convention Center. To view the abstract, visit http://www.abstracts2view.com/pas/view.php?nu=PAS16L1_4635.3.

Please note: only the abstract is being presented at the meeting. In some cases, the researcher may have more data available to share with media, or may be preparing a longer article for submission to a journal. Contact the researcher for more information.

The Pediatric Academic Societies (PAS) Meeting brings together thousands of individuals united by a common mission: to improve child health and wellbeing worldwide. This international gathering includes pediatric researchers, leaders in academic pediatrics, experts in child health, and practitioners. The PAS Meeting is produced through a partnership of four organizations leading the advancement of pediatric research and child advocacy: Academic Pediatric Association, American Academy of Pediatrics, American Pediatric Society, and Society for Pediatric Research. For more information, visit the PAS Meeting online at http://www.pas-meeting.org, follow us on Twitter @PASMeeting and #PASMeeting, or like us on Facebook.

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Laura Milani Alessio
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