Childhood Poverty

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Poverty is viewed throughout the world as a large social problem that continues to advance with time. Since 1960, poverty has continued to flourish into a problem that has affected a large majority of the population, including our children. Childhood poverty affects the psychological and biological development, as well as three main levels of social systems: micro, mezzo and macro. Even though there has been active research on poverty, generational poverty and childhood poverty, no active changes have been made to enhance these childrens’ lives.

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Two theories that correlate and explain the issue of childhood poverty include: social learning theory and attribution theory. These theories emphasize how children observe, imitate, and model their caregivers and react emotionally based on their evaluation of particular social settings. By understanding the implications of these theories, generational poverty can be eliminated by setting children up for a more successful life by emphasizing education and the ability to make enhanced life decisions. Poverty has been an ongoing issue in the world for many years. It exists everywhere on Earth, in varying degrees and is highly unlikely to be resolved in these next few upcoming years. This is because poverty is a pervasive human condition of being unable to obtain or provide a standard level of food, water, and/or shelter (Fay). Poverty has made its home in many countries, the United States being one of them. It is a hard concept to wrap one’s head around because even though it is considered a very rich country, millions of residents live in poverty every year. To understand how this is possible, poverty must be explained in measurable terms with factual information.

In the 1960’s the official method of calculating America’s poverty level was developed and has not been substantially advanced or changed with the growth of the times. Mollie Orshansky developed this model by averaging economical but, adequate diet for American families that were experiencing a money shortage. Orshansky deduced that the average American household of three or more members, devotes approximately one third of their income on food. Then, she multiplied by a factor of three, to include all family expenses. At that time, Orshansky composed 124 poverty thresholds for different family characteristics, but only 48 thresholds stand today. There has been attempts to update Orshansky’s method, but no variations have been made. Instead, critics continue to point out that the method only includes financial income, but not other sources like food stamps, school lunches, Medicaid or tax advantages. These supplementary sources would change the poverty number because critics argue many families that are reported to be poor are not. Therefore, until these changes are made the current methodology could be overstating the extent of poverty in the United States (Fay). Whether you agree or disagree with Orshansky’s outdated model, it is still important to note there are two distinct ways of measuring poverty- absolute poverty and relative poverty. Absolute poverty is seen as the quantity of life-sustaining goods and services a person or family cannot acquire. This includes the minimal standard of food, clothing, shelter, clean water, sanitation, education and access to health care. These are consistent standards across the world and have not changed over time. For example, 2000 to 2500 calories a day is the standard for a human body worldwide and for every culture to sustain the human body. Relative poverty is different as it examines how different social groups have different income inequality. To explain, in the United States, a household that has appliances can be considered impoverished if its income is beneath the poverty threshold. However, in some countries, these homes would be considered well-off (Fay).

Studies show in 2013, 11.4 billion, or about 20% of the world’s population live in extreme poverty on less then $1.25 US a day. That is considered living in extreme poverty, meanwhile $2 US a day is living in moderate poverty. 46.2 million Americans are accounted for in that 20% of being considered impoverished. This is exactly 15% of the population of the United States. This number is the most ever recorded in American history when comparing to recent years. In the late 1950’s, just about 40 million Americans lived in poverty. These numbers fluctuated many times throughout the year but then just started to steadily incline with no signs of decreasing. Since poverty is a significant problem affecting a large sum of the population, much research has been conducted on the relation to race, ethnicity, age, gender, family structure and disability have been conducted (Fay). It is important to put emphasis on these specific categories to understand the pattern and characteristic of poverty, with the desired outcome of combatting it. It is found that 27.2% of Black, 25.6% of Hispanics, 11.7% of Asians, and 9.7% of non-Hispanics are accounted for and considered to be poor. These statistics have gone down dramatically in recent years, but active efforts work to continually decrease the gap between Whites and groups of color. To expand the scope, women are more likely than men to be poor on a global and national scale. Also, a single mother is more likely to live in poverty than two parent families or single-parent fathers. As well, statistics show that if an adult is disabled, they are far more likely to live in poverty. This data is significant and should be analyzed in such a way that it provides information beyond just numbers (Hutchison,2015). Thanks to all the research done by the Census Bureau, it is easy to see patterns and movement of the American population in and out of poverty. In the years of 2009, 2010, and 2011, almost one-third of all Americans have been poor at least once for two months or more (Pimpare, Valenti, Team, & Weiss, 2018).

Therefore, we need to realize that poverty is not just for a defined group but instead, it is a very common occurrence. On the other hand, there are Americans who face generational poverty. This is when a family has lived in poverty for at least two generations. Donna M. Beegle created a study focusing on college graduates whose families had lived in poverty for at least three generations (Beegle, 2003). The consensus was that the participants experience shame, humiliation and feeling of not belonging due to growing up in poverty (Beegle, 2003). They experienced physical, emotional, sociological and economic barriers trying to get an education, job, housing, food, health care, and basically anything else that classifies independence (Beegle, 2003). The respondents felt that they experienced this due to their unfortunate upbringing and as a result, set them up for the same future . Over the past 50 years, children were more vulnerable to poverty than older adults. One child in five will experience poverty compared to one in eight adults (Facts About Child Poverty in the U.S.A). That is 15.5 million impoverished children in the United States alone (Facts About Child Poverty in the U.S.A.). Poverty rates for children in the United States are much higher when compared to other developed nations. In fact, only Greece, Mexico, Israel, and Turkey have higher rates of child poverty than the U.S. has (Facts About Child Poverty in the U.S.A.). This is most likely to do with the federal cuts between 2012 and 2014, which limited spending on children’s education, nutrition, social services, early education, and care (Facts About Child Poverty in the U.S.A.).

The government spends only 10% of the national budget on children, which results in hungry children with life long side effects (Facts About Child Poverty in the U.S.A.). These effects include lower reading and maths scores, physical and mental health problems, increased emotional and behaviour problems and obesity. It is extremely difficult for these children to succeed in life and break the pattern of poverty within their families when this is all they know. The children have grown up being ashamed of their food stamps, appearance, minimal money, housing situations and feeling of hopelessness to find a job with no goals or ambitions, or a friend to support them. The social, economical, political, and personal factors of generational poverty affects children immensely. Many study childhood poverty to understand how and why this is a continuous pattern. Once understood, it is our duty as social workers and active members of societies to break the cycle. One way childhood poverty can be explained is referring to social learning theory. It is a theory of learning and social behaviours which proposes that new behaviours can be acquired by observing, imitating, and modeling others (David,2015). This is especially relatable to children because infants rely on their families and surroundings to learn everything. This begins at the age of eight months old, when children imitate simple actions and expressions of others (“Foundation: Imitation,” 2018). Then at 18 months, the child may start to rock their baby doll to sleep, pretend to sweep with a child-sized broom and talking on a toy phone(“Foundation: Imitation,” 2018). These are all actions that they have observed. Then, just around 36 months of age, children are smart enough to re-enact multiple steps like getting ready for their day by making breakfast, packing a bag and saying simple phrases like “bye”, “beep beep”, “daddy”, “cup” etc (“Foundation: Imitation,” 2018). The children model their parents and caregivers by using the same gestures, words and intonation. Therefore, children need to be given more credit for how clever and intelligent they are, and parents need to be more actively aware of this. If children can pick up on all the aspects previously discussed, they are smart enough to understand their family status. Classrooms at school have a variety of children of sex, age, racial orientation and social class.

Children recognize when they do not have the same toys, clothing, snacks, and friends like all the other children, which results in them being bullied. Lack of education due to an unproductive learning environment is a big reason for child poverty. Children, being as intuitive as they truly are, start to piece together that maybe their home life is not the same as the other children. As a result, children start to accept their family’s social class and learn to grow accustom to their family’s habits. For example, if my mom does not go to work then I do not have to go to school. Also, children raised in poverty may experience poor education due to limited access to good schools and their parents not having the time or resources to give them extra help. These children who grow up in poverty are disadvantaged and this correlates to the sequence of generational poverty. In addition to lacking resources for education, children who experience poverty are more susceptible to long-term health implications. There are many reasons, some just being as simple as households not being equipped with functional smoke detectors, unsafe roofs and stairs, unprotected windows and so on (Boghani,2017). In addition, poverty- born children are more inclined to experience asthma or obesity that leads to problems such as diabetes and heart disease (Boghani,2017). Exposure to tobacco in households also has a direct correlation, which harms the brain as well (Boghani,2017). Creating an avenue for other children to bully them based on their weight and appearance, causes the child to not to want to go to school. Being raised in an impoverished household, creates vulnerability to constant stresses. This toxic stress may include abuse or neglect, but either way, impacts a child’s brain development and the ability to succeed (Boghani,2017). The permanent changes to brain structure and function increases anxiety, impaired memory and mood control, which causes a disadvantage in the classroom as you try to learn, problem solve and follow rules (Boghani,2017).

The children will mimic their caregivers emotional conduct and will more likely than not mirror the damaged emotional state, caused by stress. This stress is proven to be a significant problem in the growth of children’s brains and emotional well-being. Without proper education, children lack the tools and abilities to escape from the poverty they are far too familiar with. The children’s community, school, personal brain development, is all a result of the children wanting to be like mom and dad. The children study the habits, emotions, reactions and imitate them which is causing childhood poverty to be chronic. The future of your children lies in your hands as a parent or caregiver, starting when the child is eight months old. Parents must identify how intelligent their children are and weigh out different options of how to make a more functional household that does not include making your children susceptible to chronic illnesses, toxic stress, bullying and a lifetime of poverty. Therefore, these reasons support that poverty is explained by social learning theory. As discussed earlier, children who have grown up in poverty experience changes in brain chemistry and mental and emotional states, which hurts their development in their family and school environment. That is explained through social learning theory, but attribution theory also gives evidence to fuel the reasons behind childhood poverty. Attribution theory “is a theory of emotional behavior asserting that the experience of emotion is based on conscious evaluations people make about their physiological sensations in particular social settings” (Hutchison, 2015). In other words, a child in an impoverished home would respond to a situation as they understand it, which correlates to the emotion they experience (Hutchison, 2015). The child may interpret teasing from his family different than he would by his peers. A child in poverty does not fit in with the wealthy or middle-class students therefore, he feels threatened and anxious.

The psychological response which may be conscious or unconscious, would be to find security by ignoring the students and sit in isolation (Hutchison, 2015). The child would then feel that the students and teachers are negatively appraising him, resulting in feeling resentment and inferior. The consequence is a low level of self-esteem. They will not experience a lot of achievement within school by doubting their abilities and giving minimal effort, an internal factor (“Attribution Theory,” 2018). Consider a student who repeatedly fails their reading course. They will begin to feel less competent. This self-perception of their reading level will then reflect itself on the child’s expectations of success in the future (“Attribution Theory,” 2018). This student will not want to go to school or seek opportunities to learn and improve themselves because they doubt their ability and believe that success is related to luck and money (“Attribution Theory,” 2018). The psychological stress incorporated in the different emotions caused by social settings alters the biological pathways. The pathways related to neural growth, energy metabolism, inflammation, and neuroendocrine responses to stress, is biologically altered and embedded in a child’s neurocognitive development (Jensen, Berens, & Nelson, 2017). At that point, the ongoing cycle of poverty within children in impoverished households continues to be fueled. In contrast, the set of events discussed earlier would be significantly different if the child experienced anxiety within his household or family. Since the nature of his house is a comfortable social setting then the psychological response would not be as strong. The child may instead experience frustration because that is where he finds loyalty and security (Hutchison, 2015). However, the child will not resent or feel abandoned and avoid his family.

By understanding the application of social learning and attribution theory of impoverished children, changes can be made. One thing most children have in common is that they attend some sort of school. It is here where they get an education that the government needs to implement better resources and public policies for the children in need. The childrens’ biases need to be diminished by influencing them positively. Social learning theory is not only applicable to caregivers but also to teachers. Teachers and schools must do their part by creating a resourceful and comfortable place for the children to learn, since the social learning theory suggests they lack that support from home. The teacher could provide benefits to the child by productively giving an insight into what a world with education can give you and you will succeed. This would have to be done by teaching the children to accept diversity and eliminate bullying. School would then be a welcoming environment to improve children’s self-esteem and motivation to be successful in their lives. Ultimately, re-shaping these children’s lives to believing they can escape generational poverty at a young age, by promoting self-regulation and awareness of oneself. The government, at the macro level, must change the attitude and process associated with escaping from poverty. If the government worked alongside the schools to provide the finances and policies, the chain of child and generational poverty can be ceased. This can be done by advocating for a diverse student population and valuing the importance of high-quality early care and learning experiences.

Poverty is an ongoing issue, it begins in childhood, it can be generational, and it is a problem. The poverty rate is at an all time high with one fifth of our children experiencing poverty. This is earth shattering as these numbers have increased in recent years when compared to history. Poverty has many different factors and can be hard to interpret how it affects so many people, including children. Childhood poverty can be explained by both social learning and attribution theory. Social learning theory enlightens the impact that caregivers have on the ongoing pattern of poverty; meanwhile, attribution theory clarifies on the psychological and emotional implications. By understanding these theories, we, as social workers, can actively begin to eliminate poverty by changing the structure of an individual, family and larger social settings such as school and churches.  

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Childhood Poverty. (2019, Aug 06). Retrieved from