Poverty and Child Development

The major risk that can have an adverse negative impact on a child’s development is poverty. Hutchison defines poverty as when an infant or toddler cannot get enough food, quality education, healthcare, electricity, safe water or other critical services. In addition, infants and toddlers in poverty are more likely to develop emotional and behavioral problems than those not living in poverty (Hutchison, 2015).

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Children living in poverty often suffer the consequences of poor nutrition and inadequate healthcare. The typical consequences of poverty may include less access to education; poor housing and living conditions and increased levels of disease. Heightened poverty is likely to cause increased tensions in society as inequality increases. These issues often lead to rising crime rates in communities affected by poverty. According to UNICEF researchers, there is a rapid increase in poverty every year in most of the countries such islands, around the world, Romania, the United State, India, etc. (Hutchison, 2015). It is believed that 1 billion children around the world live in poverty. Children living in poverty generally lack adequate health care and often suffer from poor nutrition (Hutchison, 2015).

For instance, the United States spends much more money than it needs to by creating policies to help people in poverty although there are many other consequences of poverty it does not have policies for. Poor people experience worse health, more family problems, higher crime rates, and many other problems, all of which our nation spends billions of dollars annually to address. In fact, childhood poverty has been estimated to cost the United States’ economy an estimated $500 billion annually because of the problems it leads to, including unemployment, low-paid employment, higher crime rates, and physical and mental health problems (Eckholm, 2007). If the United States’ poverty rate were no higher than that of other democracies, billions of tax dollars and other resources would be saved.

Life course researchers are finding strong evidence for the malleability of risk factors and the possibilities for preventive interventions (Kellam & Van Horn, 1997). With attention to the diversity in life course trajectories, the life course perspective provides a good conceptual framework for culturally competent practice. And finally, the life course perspective lends itself well to research that looks at cumulative advantage and disadvantage, adding to our knowledge about the impact of power and privilege, and suggesting strategies for social justice (Hutchison, 2015).

The concept of resilience in ecology has been expanded into a framework to analyze human-environment dynamics. The extension of resilience notions that society has important limits, particularly its conceptualization of social change. The paper argues that this stems from the lack of attention to normative and epistemological issues underlying the notion of ‘social resilience’. It is suggested that critically examining the role of knowledge at the intersections between social and environmental dynamics helps to address normative questions and capture how power and competing value systems are not external to, but rather integral to, the development and functioning of “Social Ecological System”. System Theory looks at a child’s development within the context of the system of relationships that form his or her environment (Folke, 2006).

Bronfenbrenner’s theory defines complex “layers” of environment, each influencing a child’s development. This theory has recently been renamed as the “bio ecological systems theory” to emphasize that a child’s own biology is a primary environment fueling his or her development. The interaction between factors in the child’s maturing biology, his or her immediate family/community environment, and the societal landscape fuels and steers his or her development. Changes or conflict in any one layer will ripple throughout other layers. To study a child’s development then, we must look not only at the child and her immediate environment, but also at the interaction of the larger environment as well (Ryan, 2000)


The risk factors that social workers are likely to encounter in work with young children and their families are poverty, homelessness, ineffective, discipline, divorce, and violence. Nearly 20% of infants and toddlers are not up-to-date on their immunizations. Poverty in the form of the lack of food, insecurity, inadequate healthcare, and overcrowded living conditions present considerable risk to children’s growth and development. Researchers indicate that young children reared in poverty are significantly delayed in language and other cognitive skills (Locke, Ginsborg, & Pers, 2002)

In homelessness, almost half of school-age children and over one-fourth of children under five suffer from depression, anxiety or aggression after becoming homeless (Hutchison, 2015). More than one-fifth of homeless children ages 3-6 years old have emotional problems serious enough to require professional care. Homeless children are twice as likely as poor housed children to have learning disabilities, and three times as likely to have emotional and behavioral problems. Nearly half of school-aged homeless children have witnessed family violence, and one in five of these children become homeless as adults (Hutchison, 2015). Children living in homelessness are physically abused at twice the rate of other children (Hutchison, 2015).

Kristen Paquette and Ellen Badduk (2009) note that parent’s identities are often closely tied to relationships they maintain, especially with their children, and that homelessness undermines their ability to protect those they have a responsibility to protect. Like all parents, homeless parents want to provide their children with basic necessities. Being homeless present dramatic barriers and challenges for parents, who too often lose the ability to provide essentials for their children, including shelter, food and access to education.


Resiliency during the infant and toddler years is equally relevant during the early childhood years. Other protective factors also come into play as shown by a study by Jenson & Franser. (2011). A child’s ability to thrive can be directly correlated to both his and her environment and caregiver interactions/attachment. Mary Ainsworth’s Theory of Attachment can explain the intricacies of infant and toddler development. Ainsworth specified three different types of attachment: secure, anxious, and avoidant/ambivalent. Later on, a fourth type of attachment was added: insecure/disorganized attachment (Hutchinson, 2015). Of these types, the ideal attachment style, is secure. A secure attachment is found when the mother/caregiver is attentive and responsive to the child’s need. Social support aids young children in several ways (Jenson & Franser, 2011). Having a consistent and supporting aunt, uncle, or preschool teacher who can set firm but loving limits, for example, may buffer the effects of a parent with ineffective skills. At the community level, preschools, religious programs, and the like may help to enhance physical and cognitive skills, self-esteem, and social development. Positive Parent-Child relationships with at least one parent helps children to feel secure and nurtured (Jenson & Franser, 2011). Effective parenting promotes self-efficacy and self-esteem and provide young children with a model of how they can take initiative within healthy boundaries (Jenson & Franser, 2011).

Conclusions and Future Studies

A role that social workers can play in addressing these consequential outcomes to childhood development would be to be proactive about the problem. Although there are children already experiencing difficulties with development, I think a social worker should be able to look at what those children are experiencing while also providing them with aid and resources, determine what happened or is happening to get them there, and start thinking of a way to support and be an advocate for those children who are in poverty, or suffering from inadequate caregiving. By being proactive and advocating for children in poverty and those suffering from inadequate caregiving, the social worker is also providing an opportunity for children who are born into those types of situations to not have negative developmental consequences due to the environment in which they were born. Social work involves making tough judgments about risk to individuals, and at times, social workers have to use their ability and influence to protect the victims of poverty from themselves or others. Examples include situations of domestic violence, child abuse, or mental health. Social workers’ long history of working with people in poverty situations and witnessing their changing behavior illustrates the importance of integrating theories about professional values that respect people and their choices and decisions. Social workers also have a responsibility to ensure that social conditions that contribute to economic inequalities, unjust policies, and practices are challenged and abolished. This includes, but is not limited to, making sure that those most in need receive resources first, and that the resources offered are distributed fairly. Social workers can also try to intervene and help these families gain access to resources they need in order to alleviate the stress associated with living in poverty. Additionally, if increases in income can help improve child development, we can advocate for continued or additional funding for policies like the child tax credit or food stamps (Duncan, Magnuson, & Votruba-Drzal, 2014).

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