Some 17 percent of children in America live in families with incomes below the federal poverty line, according to a 2005 U.S. Census Bureau report. A minority of these children will escape poverty by the time they grow up. Even so, their bodies will still bear the marks of their early deprivations as they succumb to higher rates of cancer, infectious diseases, arthritis, and other ailments. Adults who never leave poverty suffer even worse fates, studies show.

Yet no one quite understands how...

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