Decades ago, when a new drug called crack was tearing apart communities across the U.S., much of the concern about the epidemic revolved around so-called "crack babies." To speak frankly, the fear seemed to be that poor black women who were smoking crack while pregnant would give birth to a legion of black children with all kinds of physical and mental abnormalities. Comedians had whole standup routines devoted to the scourge of crack babies, while some cities went so far as to prosecute women who gave birth to babies who'd been exposed to cocaine. Today, research out of Pennsylvania confirms that some people whose mothers smoked crack while pregnant do indeed struggle at times, but not for the reasons one might think.

In 1989, Dr. Hallam Hurt, who at the time was chair of neonatology at Philadelphia’s Albert Einstein Medical Center, launched a study into the long-term effects crack had on children exposed to the drug in the womb. At the time, nearly one out of every six mothers giving birth in the city's hospitals tested positive for cocaine. Hurt's assumption, she tells Gawker, was the same one lots of people had: "We were fully anticipating seeing a host of problems with these children, ranging from physical to developmental problems."

Almost a quarter century after beginning her research, Dr. Hurt now says her and America's rampant fears about crack babies were unwarranted. Rather, Hurt says, what our country should have been worried about all along—what we should still be worried about—is what poverty does to kids.

Hurt's research followed the lives of 224 near- or full-term babies born at Einstein Hospital between the years of 1989 and 1992. Half of the children, the majority of whom were black, had mothers who used cocaine while pregnant and half had mothers who did not. All of the kids, however, were born into low-income families. Two decades of regular check-ins with and examinations of her subjects later, Hurt reports that she and her team have yet to find any significant differences between people exposed to cocaine in utero and others.

"The long and short of it is that we’ve not seen a significant damaging effect of cocaine," says Hurt.

Instead, what Hurt noticed is that all of her subjects fared equally poorly compared to other American children. Reports 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.

Confident that her research showed exposure to crack wasn't significantly holding these children back, Hurt began to explore other influences on their life, including their relationships with their caregivers and their proximity to violence. Those findings revealed what you would imagine they do. Again, from the Inquirer:

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.

To Dr. Hurt, who stresses that her research doesn't say it's safe for women to do cocaine while pregnant, the message is clear: crack babies aren't a real danger to America's social order; poverty and the ills accompanying it—violence, prison, depression, etc.—are.

"We feel that poverty is a far greater hammer than any gestational cocaine use," she says. "If this work brings anything to bear, I think it’s how important it is it help poor children progress from the moment they're born. Yes, we’re interested in early intervention right now, and yes we’re doing things, but we're not doing enough."

[Image via AP]