Thursday, August 18, 2011

Poverty Matters: The Effects of Being Poor On Children

A recent national study revealed that 1 in 5 U.S. children lives in poverty which has largely been attributable to the recession and represents an increase of nearly 2.5 million children since 2000. Given the number and the scope of the negative effects associated with poverty, increasing poverty rates among U.S. children have the potential to inflict severe psychological, emotional and economic damage on the next generation of young people. This issue is particularly pertinent for me living in Lynn, MA, a city where nearly a quarter of children (under age 18) live below the poverty line; other cities in Massachusetts have as high as 42% of children living below the poverty line (Danzing & Bernier, 2008). In Chelsea, MA, 97.4% of children under age 18 live in a neighborhood 20% of more of population is living below the poverty line (Danzig & Bernier, 2008). Furthermore, the Massachusetts Citizens for Children found that on any given day 50,000 school aged children and youth as well as 50,000 younger children are homeless in Massachusetts (Danzig & Bernier, 2008); at the Whitney Elementary School in Las Vegas alone 85% of the 610 students are homeless (see here). Knowing the numbers is important, but what about the specific consequences of both short-term and persistent poverty? What are some of the far-reaching effects of childhood poverty?

Jeanne Brooks-Gunn and Greg Duncan published a study in 1997 detailing the toll that poverty can take on children. Specifically, Brooks-Gunn and Duncan (1997) found that poor children suffer higher incidences of adverse health, developmental, and other outcomes than non-poor children. In terms of physical health, poor children are 1.7 times more likely to be born with a low birth rate than non-poor children.  This is likely because poor pregnant women have less access to adequate nutrition and prenatal care; in Lynn, nearly 29% of pregnant women receive NO prenatal care within the first trimester (Torname, 2011). Low birth weight has been associated with an increased likelihood of cognitive and emotional problems that can persist through childhood and adolescence (Brooks-Gunn & Duncan, 1997). Learning disabilities, physical disabilities, and grade repetition as well as lower levels of math and reading achievement are also more prevalent among children who were low birth weight as infants (Brooks-Gunn & Duncan, 1997). This information is particularly disheartening given that in my hometown (Lynn, MA) 8.7% of children are born with a low birth rate (Torname, 2011). Additionally, poor children are only 66% as likely to be in excellent health and almost twice as likely to be in poor or fair health compared to non-poor children (Brooks-Gunn & Duncan, 1997). Poor children are also twice as likely to experience growth stunting (low height for age), spend almost 1.5 times as many days in bed, and have twice as many short-stay hospitalizations than non-poor children (Brooks-Gunn & Duncan, 1997). 

In terms of cognitive abilities, children living below the poverty line are more likely to experience learning disabilities and developmental delays (Brooks-Gunn & Duncan, 1997). One study found that poorer children scored between 6 and 13 points lower on various standardized tests of IQ, verbal ability, and achievement (Brooks-Gunn & Duncan, 1997). This difference between poor and non-poor children was still present even when controlling for maternal age, marital status, education and ethnicity. The 6- to 13-point difference on these types of measures, for some, could mean the difference between being placed in a special education class or not (Brooks-Gunn & Duncan, 1997). Findings suggest that the effects of poverty on children's cognitive development occur early, but also that the effects of long-term poverty were significantly greater than the effects of short-term poverty (Brooks-Gunn, 1997).  What is the reason for this? Poverty has been found to affect children's brain development as children growing up in poor families tend to experience unhealthy levels of stress hormones. Excessive levels of stress hormones disrupt the formation of synaptic connections between cells in the developing brain and affect its blood supply. The result is impaired language development and memory (Danzig & Bernier, 2008). 

Fortunately, a comprehensive review of the literature did find that the effect of poverty on the number of school years completed was small (Brooks-Gunn, 1997). The observed relationship between income and educational attainment seems to be related more so to confounding factors such as parental education, family structure, and neighborhood characteristics as opposed to just family income (Brooks-Gunn, 1997). Research does suggest, however, that family income averaged from birth to age 5 had a much more powerful effect on the number of school years a child completes than family income measured between ages 5 and 10 or between ages 11 and 15 (Brooks-Gunn, 1997). Specifically, for low income children a $10,000 increase in mean family income between birth and age 5 was associated with almost a full year increase in completed schooling (Brooks-Gunn, 1997). This same increase to family income later in childhood had no significant impact suggesting that income may only be a significant  primary factor in future education attainment during the earliest childhood years (Brooks-Gunn, 1997). In terms of other academic related outcomes, poor children were twice as likely to repeat a grade, be suspended or expelled and dropout of high school (Brooks-Gunn, 1997).

Poor children also suffer from emotional and behavioral problems more frequently than non-poor children exhibiting both more externalizing (aggression, fighting, and acting out) and internalizing behaviors (anxiety, social withdrawal, depression) than children who had never been poor (Brooks-Gunn, 1997). This may be due to the fact that poor children are almost 7 times more likely to experience child abuse or neglect and violent crime than non-poor children (Brooks-Gunn, 1997). Short-term poverty (being poor in at least 1 out of 4 years) was also associated with behavioral problems though the effects were smaller than what was found for those experiencing more persistent poverty (Brooks-Gunn, 1997). Still, parents in poor families were 1.3 times more likely to have a child who had an emotional or behavioral problem that lasted 3 or more months (Brooks-Gunn, 1997). Interestingly, persistent poverty was associated with more internalizing behaviors while current, but not persistent, poverty was associated with externalizing behaviors such as hyperactivity and peer conflict (Brooks-Gunn, 1997). 

So how and why does poverty have such a negative effect on children?

Health & Nutrition
- The cumulative health disadvantage experienced by poor children on health measures may account for as much as 13% to 20% of the difference in IQ between poor and non-poor children (Brooks-Gunn, 1997). 

-Malnutrition is associated with lower scores in tests of cognitive development (Brooks-Gunn, 1997).

-Growth stunting, which poor children are at an increased for, affects short-term memory. The effects of stunting on short-term memory is equivalent to the difference in short term memory between families that experienced poverty for 13 years and children in families with incomes at least 3 times the poverty level (Brooks-Gunn, 1997). 

Parental Interactions with Children
-Among adolescents, family economic pressure may lead to conflict with parents resulting in lower school grades, reduced emotional health, and impaired social relationships (Brooks-Gunn, 1997). 

-Other sources of conflict include economic uncertainty, unemployment or underemployment and unstable work conditions that ultimately impact the children (Brooks-Gunn, 1997). 

Parental Mental Health
-Parents who are poor are likely to be less healthy both emotionally and physically than those who are not poor (Brooks-Gunn, 1997). 

-Parental irritability and depressive symptoms are associated with conflictual interactions with adolescents, leading to less satisfactory emotional, social and cognitive development (Brooks-Gunn, 1997). 

-Poor parental mental health is associated with impaired parent-child interactions and less provision of learning experiences in the home (Brooks-Gunn, 1997). 

Neighborhood Conditions
-Low income may lead to residence in extremely poor neighborhoods characterized by social disorganization such as crime and few resources for child development such as playgrounds, day care and after school programs (Brooks-Gunn, 1997). 

-Poor children are twice as likely to report being scared to leave the house (Brooks-Gunn, 1997).

-Other pathways through which poverty operates include a lack of access to and use of prenatal care, access to pediatric care, exposure to environmental toxins, household stability, quality of school attended and peer groups (Brooks-Gunn, 1997).

While poverty has the ability to negatively affect multiple aspects of both children and adults' lives, there are protective factors against a guaranteed life of misfortune. These include strong family support, religion, and positive peer relationships. Additionally, introducing learning experiences in the home has been found to aid in cognitive development and counteract poverty's influence on achievement outcomes. Unfortunately, not all children have parents or families that are willing or able to provide the necessary academic or emotional support to prevent negative outcomes. While some in the recent education reform debate may say that citing poverty is 'an excuse,' as the research here and elsewhere suggests, the effects of poverty on one's  overall emotional and physical well being and  future educational outcomes as well as on life’s trajectory in general are very real. 

Brooks-Gunn, J. and Duncan, G.J. (1997). The effects of poverty on children. Children and Poverty, 55-71.
Danzig, B. and Bernier, J. (2008). Child poverty in Massachusetts: a tale of 2 states. Massachusetts Citizens for Children, 1-63.
Torname, J. (2011). Lynn: a little city with big potential. New Lynn Coalition Publication, 2-32.

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