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Poverty Hurts Kids More Than Being Born to Moms on Cocaine

The conclusion to a long-running study of "crack babies" in Philadelphia.


In 1989, nearly one in six babies born in Philadelphia city hospitals had mothers who tested positive for cocaine.

At the time, Susan FitzGerald writes in the Philadelphia Inquirer, screaming headlines warned that pretty terrible things would happen to those babies: They'd grow up with lower IQs, with faulty brain development, with permanent disabilities. They'd inevitably become addicts themselves. This was in the midst of the crack epidemic, when it looked as if an entire generation of children in some cities might be born with problems that would follow them for life. 

In the 25 years since then, researchers in Philadelphia have been performing one of the longest-running studies on what really happens to these babies as they grow up. FitzGerald, who has written about the study over the year, covers its staggering conclusion this week:

The researchers consistently found no significant differences between the cocaine-exposed children and the controls. At age 4, for instance, the average IQ of the cocaine-exposed children was 79.0 and the average IQ for the nonexposed children was 81.9. Both numbers are well below the average of 90 to 109 for U.S. children in the same age group. When it came to school readiness at age 6, about 25 percent of children in each group scored in the abnormal range on tests for math and letter and word recognition.

"We went looking for the effects of cocaine," [researcher Hallam] Hurt said. But after a time "we began to ask, 'Was there something else going on?' "

While the cocaine-exposed children and a group of nonexposed controls performed about the same on tests, both groups lagged on developmental and intellectual measures compared to the norm. Hurt and her team began to think the "something else" was poverty.

This doesn't mean that cocaine, in utero, does nothing to kids. But it does mean we may want to change how we think about how potent poverty is.

Top image: Andresr/

About the Author

  • Emily Badger is a former staff writer at CityLab. Her work has previously appeared in Pacific StandardGOODThe Christian Science Monitor, and The New York Times. She lives in the Washington, D.C. area.