There is no doubt that poverty and its consequences hurt communities and even whole nations, but did you realize that socioeconomic position also has a direct influence on children? Poverty exposes children to a broad range of risk factors, from health issues to higher academic challenges. Unfortunately, about 15 million children in the United States (nearly 21% of all children!) live in low-income homes (incomes below the federal poverty line or poverty threshold), a criterion that has been demonstrated to underestimate the requirements of working families. According to research, families need a family income of around double that amount to pay basic needs. It is no secret that poverty in America is an epidemic that must be addressed! In addition to challenges fulfilling basic, daily necessities, the following are just a few of the numerous ways child poverty hurts children of all ages:
The Health Consequences of Childhood Poverty
Most people are unaware of how much low-income homes and severe poverty may affect children’s health and cognitive development. Poverty, on the other hand, has an influence on growth beginning in early life, beginning with brain development and other bodily systems. Poverty may have a deleterious impact on how the body and mind grow, and economic stress can change the underlying structure of a child’s brain. Children who are exposed to risk factors connected with poverty, either directly or indirectly, are more likely to have poor health issues as adults, such as heart disease, hypertension, stroke, obesity, certain malignancies, and even a reduced life expectancy.
A child’s mental health is at danger of being negatively impacted in addition to brain development and health problems connected with poor socioeconomic position. Low-income parents and children are more likely to face mental health and mental disease difficulties. These mental health issues often impact overall academic progress and children’s capacity to prosper in school. Poverty has the potential to increase these children’s engagement with child welfare and juvenile justice organizations.
Growing Up in a Poor Neighborhood
Unfortunately, disadvantaged children are more likely to grow up in poor communities. Concentrated poor communities are often related with scholastic challenges, behavioral and social concerns, and declining health. Furthermore, these children are more likely to grow up in communities where they are exposed to environmental hazards. Malnutrition, pollution, food insecurity, housing instability, economic hardship, lead exposure, violence, and crime are examples of socioeconomic risk factors.
In the case of violence, even indirect exposure (such as seeing a violent act or merely being aware of its existence) has been proven to have negative developmental consequences. As a result of family income inequality, poor children are disproportionately more likely to attend schools in districts with fewer resources, less funding from local tax dollars, less parental involvement due to longer, lower-wage working hours, inadequate facilities, and a high turnover of school leadership.
Poverty and Education
Poverty has an impact on how children learn in addition to these macro-level elements that influence community schools. To begin, children who are exposed to risk factors such as poverty or poor parental education have a greater than 90% probability of having one or more issues with speech, learning, and/or emotional development. Furthermore, children who grow up in poverty often struggle to concentrate in school. (You can’t learn properly if you’re hungry!) In addition to needing to worry about finishing their homework, these young children often have greater levels of pressures and challenges after school.
The Effects of Poverty on Children Within Families
Because children develop within the framework of a family unit, it is critical to understand how poverty impacts the whole household. For starters, low-income parents frequently struggle to meet their families’ basic economic needs, such as paying for rent, food, utilities, clothing, education, accommodations, health care, health insurance, transportation, and child care. Living in poverty often means having limited access to health care, food and housing security, a higher chance of school drop-out for children, being homeless, being unemployed owing to a lack of education or child care, and, sadly, not attaining one’s full potential.
Stress and Poverty Status
Furthermore, having little or no income has a negative impact on stress and alienation. When it comes to meeting their family’s basic needs, financial uncertainty is a major source of stress for parents. According to the American Psychological Association’s (2017) “Stress in America” survey, the proportion of adults who report that stress has an impact on their physical and mental health and overall well-being is significantly increasing.
Unfortunately, poverty and stress are two highly consistent factors among child abusers, and they are inextricably linked. While there are many factors that contribute to child maltreatment (such as mental illness, intimate partner violence, substance abuse, poor parenting skills, unmanaged anger, a lack of coping strategies, or other individual issues), the link between poverty and stress, abuse, and neglect cannot be overlooked. Children who are exposed to traumatic events (also known as adverse childhood experiences) are more likely to develop a variety of health issues, behavioral issues, or even substance abuse disorders later in life. Adverse childhood experiences will only exacerbate the child’s problems as he or she grows from adolescence to adulthood.
Environmental complexities and material deprivation have been identified as causes of severe physical abuse in multiple studies. Low income, uneducated caregivers, single parent households, an incarcerated parent, teen pregnancy, unemployment, and living in the midst of community violence are just a few examples of macro-level socioeconomic factors that undoubtedly contribute to family stress.
Furthermore, insufficient bonding between the child and their caregivers, intimate partner violence in the home, a physical or mental disability (either the parent or the child), and other health issues (such as premature birth) are micro-level issues that place parents under tremendous mental stress, which may translate into abusive behavior. Younger children are also more vulnerable to abuse, with 46.5% of child abuse fatality victims being under the age of one year, and 34.5% being between the ages of one and three (“Child Welfare Information Gateway,” n.d.).
Furthermore, low-income families may lack access to adequate resources. Due to additional stress in the home, family income inequality increases the risk of neglect, criminal activity, and physical abuse. While it is important to note that most poor or stressed-out parents will not abuse or neglect their children, children who grow up in poverty are at a higher risk of maltreatment overall.
You may have heard the phrase “The Poverty Cycle.” The theory behind the intergenerational poverty cycle is that poor parents raise their children in poverty, who are then more likely to become poor parents themselves. It is critical to remember that children are more vulnerable to the negative effects of poverty than adults. While various risk factors exist for impoverished households (such as single parent or single income households and low parental education), access to the labor market, quality childcare, and adequate employment and education for parents provide the best protection against further increasing the child poverty rate.
Indeed, according to Harvard’s Center on the Developing Child, it is better and more useful to intervene early in development rather than later. In other words, if we provide the right tools to needy parents and poor families, their children will have a better chance of escaping poverty and becoming successful adults. Children living in poverty are affected by one or more risk factors linked to academic failure and poor health, a perfect combination for remaining trapped in the poverty cycle. According to the National Center for Children in Poverty (2017), poverty affects between three and sixteen percent of children when combined with another risk factor. A risk factor could be single parent households or parents with no or little education (1.7 million). If no action is taken, these alarming figures will continue to rise.
So, what are the options?
The two-generation approach is now the leading strategy for breaking the cycle of poverty in families, aiming to improve the family’s economic growth and circumstances by supporting parents as both workers and parents. If low-income parents are given the opportunity to pursue higher education, they will be given the opportunity to compete for higher pay.
Furthermore, if low-income parents have access to resources such as children’s therapy and quality child care, their children’s development will improve. Furthermore, while we discussed the numerous health consequences of growing up in poverty, studies have shown that eliminating intergenerational poverty can significantly reduce these odds. Overall, by assisting both generations in reaching their full potential, we are assisting multiple generations in achieving economic growth and breaking the cycle of intergenerational poverty.
Parental Education as a Potential Protective Factor
Children who start early in child care and have parents with a high educational attainment experience more positive developmental benefits than children who do not, including:
By assisting parents in obtaining the resources and support they require to pursue an education, we can benefit not only them and their children, but also their entire family and community for future generations.
The Role of School as a Protective Factor
Similarly, it is no surprise that children’s education is a powerful anti-poverty factor. However, you may be surprised to learn that simply attending school can help change their lives! “Every child is one caring adult away from a success story,” it has been said. Attending a school with at least one caring adult — whether that adult is a teacher, school social worker, counselor, principal, or administrative assistant — can help children develop resilience.
What you can do RIGHT NOW!
Along the same lines, you can choose to be that positive, caring adult in the life of a young child! You can become a mentor, classroom aide, CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocate) for foster youth, work at an after school club, invite your own child’s friends over more frequently, volunteer in your community’s child abuse prevention program, or even become a foster or adoptive parent! You can truly make a difference in the life of a child.
Another significant way that you and your family can assist a young child, family, or even an entire community is to donate both your time and your money! Donate to a charity that helps poor children or sign up to volunteer at an event. Some people have even gone to their local school district and paid students’ overdue lunch fees! Remember, it’s difficult to learn when you’re hungry, and food insecurity affects low-income families living below the poverty line disproportionately! Donate to local food banks, free clothing closets, and diaper banks to help alleviate poverty. Tutoring children in need is another great way to improve children’s lives and contribute to the reduction of the growing poverty rate!
Furthermore, by raising awareness about the effects of poverty on children, we can contribute to the reduction of extreme poverty! Discuss the negative effects and consequences of growing up in poverty with your friends, family, government representatives, school officials, and community members. Support children’s rights, change, and hope in your own community and neighborhood to be an advocate for their lives! Share this article, as well as factsheets and other information about childhood poverty and its prevalence in the United States, on social media. No child should grow up in poverty; let us all do our part to make that happen!