Poverty and Child Development Research Paper

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Income poverty is when a family’s income fails to meet a federally established threshold; this threshold differs across countries. In general, living at or below a poverty threshold signifies that a family lacks basic financial resources, and thus children may lack access to necessary resources including food, shelter, and health care. Historically, the measurement of poverty as well as research linking poverty to child development has been an Anglo-Saxon endeavor (Smeeding et al. 2000). However, international organizations, such as the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), have fostered global concern. A growing body of research suggests that poverty has consequences for children’s well-being. Internationally, the prevalence of poverty among families with children has profound implications for researchers, policy makers, and practitioners concerned with children’s development.

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This research paper, divided into three sections, reviews the literature on the role of income poverty in the lives of children and families. The first section considers different measures of poverty as well as international trends in child poverty. Second, a review of recent studies examining the association between poverty and children’s physical, cognitive, and emotional development is provided. The last section reviews the potential pathways through which poverty may influence children’s health and well-being. The conclusion briefly highlights broad policy implications.

1. Measuring Poverty And International Trends

1.1 Income And Poverty

In most countries, income poverty typically is defined by official poverty thresholds. Those families whose income falls above the poverty line are considered ‘not poor,’ whereas, families whose incomes are at or below the threshold are considered ‘poor.’ Two general types of thresholds exist, absolute and relative. Absolute poverty thresholds are based on an absolute level of resources; as such, a family’s poverty status is not influenced by other families’ incomes. For instance, the USA has an absolute poverty threshold based on anticipated food expenditures (thrifty food basket), taking into account household size, and multiplied by three; the thresholds are adjusted annually for changes in cost of living. In contrast, Canada and most Western European nations employ relative poverty thresholds. A relative poverty threshold is calculated by comparing a family’s resources to that of the average family. These thresholds are, generally, defined by half of the median or mean income of all households in the respective country. Thus, other families’ incomes can change a family’s poverty status, even if their income is relatively stable over time.

1.2 International Trends In Child Poverty

Using the poverty measures described, international comparisons of child poverty rates are considered. Comparisons of the proportion of children living in poverty in industrialized countries vary depending upon the type of poverty measure utilized (see Fig. 1, Bradbury and Jantti 1999). Using a relative measure, where families living at or below 50 percent of the national median income are considered to be poor, the USA ranks 24th out of 25 in terms of low child poverty rates, despite general economic prosperity. With the exception of the USA and UK, countries with higher levels of national income tend to have lower relative child poverty rates than countries in economic transition (Bradbury and Jantti 1999, Smeeding 1997). However, if an absolute measure of poverty is applied using the 1995 US criteria, this pattern shifts. Although the child poverty rate in the USA declines only slightly, the country’s ranking jumps to 12th place, while Russia and Hungry, countries in economic transition, have child poverty rates of 90 percent or higher. In contrast, child poverty rates remain low in the Nordic countries and Germany and are not appreciably altered by changing poverty measures (Bradbury and Jantti 1999).

Poverty and Child Development Research Paper Figure 1

The overall level of economic development of a country is not the only factor influencing child poverty trends, as over time, countries with similar levels of development fared differently. Diverse demographic differences between countries, such as the prevalence of single-parent versus two-parent families, account for some of the discrepancies, as well as different roles assumed by governments for fighting child poverty. International poverty rates also are affected by the inclusion or exclusion of social transfers including unemployment benefits, illness or disability assistance, income assistance, and housing benefits (Eurostat 1999). Within the European Union (EU) countries, the USA, and Canada, poverty rates drop from approximately 20 percent to 25 percent when transfers are included as part of a family’s annual income (Eurostat 1999, Smeeding 1997). Countries generally considered ‘welfare leaders,’ namely the Nordic countries, have, on average, lower poverty rates than other countries with fewer social programs.

2. Poverty And Child Health And Well-Being

This section provides an overview of the effects of poverty on child health and well-being. The findings are discussed for five developmental age groups: prenatal to two years, early childhood (3 to 6 years), late childhood (7 to 10 years), early adolescence (11 to 15 years), and late adolescence (16 to 19 years). Each age group incorporates at least one significant transition in a child’s life, such as school entrance or exit or biological maturation. The developmental challenges confronted during each period are relatively universal and may entail new modes of adaptation to biological, psychological, or social changes. The domains of wellbeing addressed include: physical health; school readiness and achievement; and behavior, social, and emotional problems. Each age period is associated with somewhat different indicators.

The review presented draws heavily from several recent endeavors to investigate the influence of poverty on child development. The first initiative is a cross-national comparison of key child indicators reported by UNICEF (2000), which provides a macrolevel view of how countries’ overall levels of economic development affect child well-being. The second effort is a comprehensive evaluation of research on poverty and children’s physical, emotional, and cognitive development. This analysis by Brooks-Gunn and Duncan (1997) provides a ‘risk assessment’ of the effects of poverty on child health and well-being at a single point in time by examining outcomes for poor and nonpoor children drawn from large, national cross-sectional studies, primarily in the USA. Additional figures are reported from Canadian national data (Ross et al. 1989, Ross and Roberts 1999). In contrast, the final undertaking, an interdisciplinary initiative to conduct parallel evaluations across multiple data sets with income data measured over the life course, centers on understanding the role of the dynamics of poverty (depth, timing, and persistence) on a range of outcomes, after accounting for child and family background characteristics. These results on the long-term effects of poverty on children and youth were described in a volume, Consequences of Growing Up Poor (Duncan and Brooks-Gunn 1997); statistical criteria were used to determine the magnitude of income effects reported.

2.1 Physical Health

A country’s level of economic development is associated with key indicators of child health; in developing countries (primarily those in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia), over half of all deaths among children five years of age or younger are associated with malnutrition (UNICEF 2000). In many of these countries, AIDS HIV is also contributing to rising infant mortality rates.

Research in the USA and Canada indicates that before children are born, poverty takes a toll on their health; children from poor families are approximately twice as likely to be low birth weight (less than 2,500 grams) than children who escape poverty (BrooksGunn and Duncan 1997, Ross and Roberts 1999, Ross et al. 1989). Other threats to poor children’s health include lead poisoning and experiences with hunger as well as increased risk of mortality, hospitalization, and stunting (small for height). Poor children display more health problems and disabilities than do children from affluent families (Newacheck et al. 1993). When the longer term effects of poverty are considered, living in poverty during the childhood years has been found to be associated with stunting later in life (Duncan and Brooks-Gunn 1997).

2.2 School Readiness And Achievement

Access to basic education is associated with a country’s level of economic development, such that in many developing countries, at least one-third of children are not enrolled in primary school, resulting in lower literacy rates compared with industrialized countries (UNICEF 2000). Among children of all ages, living in poverty is also associated with deficits in cognition and achievement (Brooks-Gunn and Duncan 1997, Ross and Roberts 1999, Ross et al. 1989). Findings from US studies indicate that poor children 3 to 17 years of age are about one and a half times more likely than nonpoor children to display learning disabilities. Among school-age children, poverty increases the risk that children repeat a grade, perform poorly in school, are expelled or suspended from school, and obtain low scores on tests of school readiness and achievement. By late adolescence, poor youth are more likely than their nonpoor peers to drop out of school and to be unemployed. Taken together, these studies point to the disadvantage poverty bestows upon children’s academic development; however, they do not shed light on the long-term effects of poverty on achievement.

A series of studies by Brooks-Gunn, Duncan, and colleagues have sought to understand the longer term effects of poverty on young children’s cognitive and school outcomes. Findings have been highly consistent; after accounting for family and child background characteristics, income has large effects on young children’s cognition, verbal ability, and achievement with a large effect defined as about five to six points on standardized tests. The depth of poverty is also important; children who were very poor (deep poverty defined as incomes 50 percent or less than the poverty threshold) scored particularly low on measures of cognitive and school achievement. The number of years a child lives in poverty matters as well for children’s school readiness, particularly living persistently (all years) in poverty.

Longitudinal studies of young adolescents in the USA and Canada, generally, report small to modest income effects on indicators of school performance including grade placement and grade point average (Duncan and Brooks-Gunn 1997). Among studies of late adolescence, income was also found to have small to moderate associations with measures of completed schooling (Haveman and Wolfe 1994). The timing of poverty is important for late adolescent achievement; experiences with poverty during early childhood, as opposed to other developmental periods, are most salient for educational attainment (Duncan and Brooks-Gunn 1997).

2.3 Behavior, Social, And Emotional Problems

Similar to health and achievement, the threats to poor children’s social and emotional health are great. A country’s level of economic development places children at risk for exposure to hazardous and exploitative labor as well as conflict, war, and violence (UNICEF 2000). Even in the USA, poor children are twice as likely to be the victim of a violent crime and live in unsafe neighborhoods than nonpoor children (Brooks-Gunn and Duncan 1997). Among older children in Canada, poor children exhibit higher levels of emotional problems than nonpoor children, and are approximately twice as likely to have psychiatric and conduct disorders than their nonpoor peers (Ross et al. 1989). Finally, among adolescents in the USA, the rate of teenage unmarried parenthood is three times higher among poor female adolescents than nonpoor youth. These risk figures suggest that poor children and youth are faring at less than an optimal level.

In longitudinal studies, family income has small to moderate associations with the prevalence of young and school-age children’s behavior problems as reported by parents and teachers (Brooks-Gunn and Duncan 1997). The depth, timing, and persistence of experiences with poverty during early childhood also are linked to children’s socioemotional well-being. Finally, small to moderate income effects on adolescent anxiety and hyperactivity have been reported (Duncan and Brooks-Gunn 1997).

3. The Pathways Between Poverty And Child Development

In the previous section, the direct effects of poverty on children’s and youth’s health and well-being were reviewed. Together, the research presents a consistent picture of the harmful effects of poverty, particularly during early childhood. To increase our knowledge about the influence of poverty on children’s development, it is necessary to identify the pathways between poverty and child development. This exercise is particularly constructive for drawing policy implications. Several possible processes have been hypothesized to transmit the effects of income to child development; each is reviewed in turn.

3.1 Home Environment

The quality of the home environment is a salient mechanism through which income may alter child development. The home environment entails: emotional warmth displayed by parents while interacting with their children; provision of stimulating and learning experiences in the home; and physical surroundings, such as safety of play areas and cleanliness. Poor children are likely to be raised in less emotionally, cognitively, and physically enriching environments than children from more affluent families. Several studies of young children have found that quality of the home learning environment accounts for a substantial share of the effect of poverty on children’s achievement and behavioral outcomes.

3.2 Child Care And Schools

Child care and schools are important contexts for children that may transmit the effects of low income to developmental outcomes. During young childhood, high quality child care and early intervention programs have demonstrated short-term and long-term benefits for poor children’s academic, social, and behavioral outcomes (Yoshikawa 1994). Moreover, these programs have the potential to enhance parenting outcomes as well, such as mental health and parenting skills. Among older children and youth, income effects on achievement outcomes may operate in large part through school characteristics, such as quality, climate, and demographics (Jencks and Mayer 1990).

3.3 Parenting Behavior

Economic hardship resulting from income loss, unemployment, job instability, and economic insecurity rather than low income per se is another potential mediator of income effects on child well-being. According to this ‘family stress model,’ economic hardship is associated with parental stress and depression which leads to more inconsistent, unsupportive, harsh, and punitive parenting practices. These reduced quality parent–child interactions, in turn, are associated with emotional and school problems in children (Conger et al. 1994, McLoyd et al. 1994).

3.4 Parental Mental Health

Maternal emotional well-being may be a path through which poverty affects child development; it may operate directly on child well-being or through parenting, as discussed under the family stress models. Substantial evidence exists that poverty has negative consequences on adult mental health (Kessler 1997). Additional studies reveal links between maternal emotional well-being and children’s behavior (Velez et al. 1989). One study of young children found that income might have an indirect effect on children’s behavior and cognition by means of maternal depressive symptoms and coping skills (Duncan et al. 1994).

3.5 Neighborhoods

An additional mechanism through which family income may impart its effects to child outcomes is neighborhood of residence. Inadequate income constrains the choice of where a family chooses to live, and as such, low income families may reside in very poor neighborhoods characterized by crime, unemployment, lack of resources, few role models, and absence of adult supervision of children and youth. A growing body of research indicates that neighborhood conditions affect children’s development above and beyond family income, rather than indirectly (Leventhal and Brooks-Gunn 2000). Affluent (compared with middle income) or high SES neighbors appear to have beneficial effects for children’s school readiness and achievement outcomes, while low income (compared with middle income) or low SES neighborhoods have negative consequences for children’s and youths’ emotional and social well-being. Neighborhood residence, notably income SES, is also associated with quality of home environment, parenting practices, quality of child care and schools, and peer group attributes.

3.6 Health Care

Accessibility to health care is another pathway through which poverty may operate on child health and well-being. Although children from economically disadvantaged families are in poorer health, they are less likely to receive health care services or receive services of lower quality than children from more affluent families (Newacheck et al. 1993). Several studies suggest that access to quality care may mitigate health-related problems.

3.7 Exposure To Violence

The final process by which poverty may exert an influence on child well-being is exposure to violence inside as well as outside of the home. Children’s exposure to violence as either a witness or a victim may account in part for the link between income and children’s health. Both family and neighborhood income are associated with exposure to violence (Martinez and Richters 1993, Sampson et al. 1997). Exposure to violence, in turn, is associated with psychiatric symptoms.

4. Conclusion And Future Directions

In conclusion, large international discrepancies are seen in child poverty rates. Poverty rates, however, depend upon the type of measure used, demographic differences across countries, and government policies. The research indicates that poverty has negative short-term and long-term influences on a host of child outcomes. In addition, the timing, depth, and duration of experiences with poverty are also important; deep and persistent poverty during early childhood are especially detrimental to child well-being. Increasingly, researchers are beginning to explore the potential pathways through which poverty transmits it deleterious effects to children’s development. There is growing evidence that the home environment and parental behavior are primary mechanisms of influence. Such knowledge is crucial for policies seeking to counter the negative consequences of poverty for poor children and their families. These policies can target family resources directly or the mechanisms through which poverty operates on child development. In addition, policies can impact children directly through, for example, assistance with child care, or indirectly through a policy’s impact on the family unit and neighborhood, for instance labor policies. Policies that coordinate the needs of both children and their parents are likely to be more efficacious than those that focus solely on one or the other. An important task for researchers will be to evaluate the effects of poverty-related policies on children’s development.


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