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Poverty More Influential Than In Utero Exposure to Cocaine

In the 1980s and 1990s, there was a massive sense of hysteria around the nation concerning the outcome of so-called “crack babies” – babies born to mothers using crack cocaine. Experts at the time predicted that this generation of children would be at a permanent disadvantage, both physically and intellectually.

However, the conclusion of a 24-year study of babies born amidst the crack epidemic in Philadelphia suggests that poverty actually influenced these children more heavily than gestational exposure to cocaine.

In the late 1980s, Philadelphia was the center of the crack cocaine epidemic, especially when it came to the number of crack babies born. In fact, a 1989 study showed that one in six children born in the city’s hospitals were born to mothers who had tested positive for cocaine (Knowles).

In the same year, Hallam Hurt, then chair of neonatology at Albert Einstein Medical Center, began a study to examine the long-term effects of gestational exposure to cocaine. The study followed 224 babies born between 1989 and 1992, half of whom were exposed to cocaine before birth, and half who were not. All the babies were born into low income families (FitzGerald). The study participants were then regularly evaluated, starting at the age of six months and continuing throughout young adulthood. Their IQs were evaluated, as well as MRI scans to determine brain differences. The study participants all tested lower than national averages on developmental and intellectual averages (FitzGerald).

For a long time, it was assumed that crack babies were destined to live lives of destitution and disabilities. Former research had showed that these children were often born prematurely, had lower birth rates, and smaller heads (Okie). However, this long-term study of Philadelphia’s crack babies presented a different conclusion: poverty was more influential on childhood development than exposure to cocaine in the womb.

Hurt’s study found that 81percent of these 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. All of these statistics were gathered from when the study participants were around seven years-old (FitzGerald).

Additionally, they found that there was no difference between the groups of children as to who would do drugs. Of the 224 children originally in the study, researchers have kept tabs on 110 of these participants. Yet again, the numbers didn’t show any difference between the original ‘crack babies’ and the supposed control group. Of these 110 people, 2 were killed in shootings, three are in prison, 6 graduated from college, 6 more are on the track to graduation, and 60 children were born to the 110 participants (FitzGerald).

Essentially, this study of Philadelphia’s crack babies provided numbers showing that, although gestational exposure to cocaine is not good for a child, the environment in which they are raised is more likely to heavily influence the direction of their lives, especially if a child is raised in poverty.

This study provided important information in terms of the myths concerning crack babies, as well as highlighting the need for further research into the long-term effects of poverty on childhood development. While this study showed that children born to mothers who used drugs can succeed as well as their unexposed counterparts, it also showed that poverty plays a key role in influencing a child’s intellectual and emotional development, and that more needs to be done to provide children who are born in these environments further opportunities and education.


Works Cited

FitzGerald, Susan. “‘Crack baby’ study ends with unexpected but clear result.” 22 July 2013. Web. 29 July 2013.

Knowles, David. “‘Crack baby’ study finds poverty is worse for child development than exposure to drug in womb.” 23 July 2013. New York Daily News. Web. 29 July 2013.

Okie, Susan. “The Epidemic That Wasn’t.” 26 January 2009. New York Times. Web. 29 July 2013.



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A native New Yorker, Bre loves the California scene and writing for Treatment4Addiction. She has been writing content for T4A for five months, and loves to learn new things, form opinions, and send them out to the world. Her interests include dance, singing, acting, talking with friends, being a daughter, and being the best big sister she can to her 16 year old brother. After attending ASU for a few months, she is interested in taking cosmetology classes and exploring her options. She looks forward to learning all she can, and doing something positive with that knowledge and experience.

Filed under: Alcohol and Drugs, Research · Tags: cocaine, crack babies, Crack Cocaine, Philadelphia, poverty is operated by Recovery Brands LLC, a subsidiary of American Addiction Centers, Inc.
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