In 1989, Hallam Hurt began what would become 25-year, federally-financed longitudinal study of babies exposed to cocaine in utero. Her subjects — babies born to low-income mothers in Philly’s Albert Einstein Medical Center — were divided between an experimental group of infants whose mothers had used cocaine during their pregnancy and a control group that had not been exposed.
The results, via the Philadelphia Inquirer:
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.
Other researchers found similar results.
None of this suggests cocaine use is safe. The researchers only studied near- or full- term babies in order to separate the ill-effects of premature birth from the effects of cocaine exposure itself. Cocaine use during pregnancy increases the risk of premature birth.
But this does mean crack cocaine was not responsible for poor outcomes in full-term children:
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.
As the children grew, the researchers did many evaluations to tease out environmental factors that could be affecting their development. On the upside, they found that children being raised in a nurturing home - measured by such factors as caregiver warmth and affection and language stimulation - were doing better than kids in a less nurturing home. On the downside, they found that 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 - and the kids were only 7 years old at the time. Those children who reported a high exposure to violence were likelier to show signs of depression and anxiety and to have lower self-esteem.
It’s easy to ascribe moral culpability to pregnant women who destroy their children’s chance at healthy development by using illicit drugs. It’s a lot more difficult to blame mothers for being poor and living in violence-ridden neighborhoods.
The supposed “Crack Baby Epidemic” made it easy for the media and conservative politicians to demonize poor, overwhelmingly Black, mothers. But turns out, we didn’t have a crack baby epidemic. We had — and still have — an epidemic of kids living in poverty.