Poverty’s Effect on Children

On January 8, 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson declared a war on poverty in hopes of reducing the national poverty rate. During this time period, there was a total of 23 percent of United States children living in poverty, and today there is a total of 21 percent (Murphey & Redd, 2014).

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Although this statistic is for the United States alone, 1.3 billion people across the globe face extreme poverty, receiving less than $1.25 each day (11 Facts About Global Poverty). No matter the country, poverty is a major cause of chronic stress for both children and their families. When children live in a poverty-stricken area, they are exposed to trauma and stress almost every day. This has the potential to lead into the secretion of harmful stress hormones that have the ability to permanently alter the physical makeup of a child’s brain (Jordan, 2013). The first five years of a child’s life is a very sensitive period for the damaging effects that economic deprivation may bring to one’s life. The psychological principles associated with poverty and a child’s brain development are cognition and learning, social and emotional dimensions, and motivation.

There are a multitude of different definitions of poverty, focusing on two main concepts; the idea that poverty should be defined in economic terms, or if it should be defined as a social disadvantage (Engle & Black, 2008). When poverty is defined in economic terms, it is based on a measure of one’s income, with a “poverty line” calculated based off the amount of money necessary to meet one’s dietary needs, including a small amount set aside for other nonperishable items. In comparison, when poverty is defined as a social disadvantage, it means that one lacks material assets, a sense of belonging, cultural identity, respect and education. 1 in 5 children live in families where their income is below the federal poverty line. This statistic from 2016 has been the lowest since the Great Recession which began in late 2007 (Children in Poverty, 2018). Psychological research has found that when children live in poverty, there is a wide range of various negative effects on both their physical and mental health.

In 2012, 18.6 percent of the United States population reported to have any type of mental illness, which is about 43.7 million people (Mental Health and Poverty ). The highest rate of mental illness is among adults that have an income below the federal poverty line. The relationship between poverty and mental illness is bidirectional in the United States. Poverty has the ability to worsen mental illness, and in the same respect, mental illness has the ability to lead to poverty. This is because having a mental illness increases the risk of becoming impoverished. When one suffers from a mental illness, they face extremely high health care costs, face a decrease in their own personal outlook of life, and also suffer from poor general health. Alongside the struggles that millions of impoverished people face every day, children may develop long-term mental health effects because of poverty.

The Cognitive Learning Theory is an explanation to why the brain processes and interprets information the way it does, and it also influences the ability of one to learn. This psychological principle is influenced by both intrinsic and extrinsic factors such as the environment and personal events that one experiences. When a child is exposed to poverty there are various extrinsic factors that can influence a child’s behavior and learning. These extrinsic factors include the environment in which a child grows up in, and the struggles that occur because of it. Approximately 27 years ago, researchers began to investigate the link between high rates of poverty and mental disorders, and how they relate to one another (Sohn, 2016). Since then researchers have formulated the idea that people who live in poverty are at a higher risk to develop a mental illness. Therefore, the various extrinsic factors that a child living in poverty experiences on a day to day basis has the ability to influence children’s cognitive development, their academic performance, and the way they create meaningful relationships. In addition to the various extrinsic factors, there are also a multitude of intrinsic factors that occurs in an impoverished child’s life such as their brain development as a result of living in poverty, and the various health problems that are associated in doing so. Research has shown that the longer a child is exposed to poverty, the greater deficit they will have in executive functioning and a working memory that has the potential to effect one into adulthood.

Millions of children across the globe, especially those who are poor, are very vulnerable to the effects of poverty because of the environment that they live in. Approximately half of all poor families live in a poverty concentrated neighborhood, such as those located in inner cities. Inner-city communities lack the opportunities for both parents and children to build a safe social network amongst each other. There is also an increased rate of violence in communities that receive a lower income, resulting in children having very few opportunities to safely socialize. These children are also less likely to participate in after-school activities such as clubs or sports which could result in further isolation. Living among violence also the potential to heighten one’s depression and studies have found that children who grow up in an environment that receives a low-income are at a higher risk for both mental challenges and psychological distress. When a child grows up in a crowded, low-quality structured home, with a lot of noise from either those inside the house or the outside environment, a child is more likely to have problems with their mental and cognitive development due to the extrinsic factors of an impoverished environment affecting the way a child behaves, receives attention, and learns. There are also various social risk factors in an environment like this that can hinder a child’s development such as exposure to violence, household turmoil, and parental separation.

Poverty has the ability to negatively affect one’s health, resulting in a decrease in cognitive development through both extrinsic and intrinsic factors. Children who grow up in poverty have also been shown to be associated with higher rates of poor and or chronic health conditions. Approximately 5 million children, mostly who are poor, live in older homes where the lead levels exceed the accepted threshold for safety (Wood, 2003). This exposure to lead is an example of poverty’s ability to directly impact the health of children. Exposure to lead has been seen to elevate blood lead levels in more than 1.5 million children. At high levels of lead exposure, the lead has the ability to attack the brain and the central nervous system, ultimately affecting the development of a child’s brain (Lead Poisoning and Health, 2018). Poverty has also been associated with an increased neonatal and post-neonatal mortality rates, a greater risk of injuries from abuse and or neglect, and a higher risk for asthma (Aber, Bennett, Conley, & Li, 1997). Women who are poor have an 80% greater chance of hanging a low birth weight newborn when compared to women who are not poor (Wood, 2003). This can be caused by prenatal and postnatal complications, having inadequate prenatal care and poor nutrition throughout their pregnancy. This ultimately has the potential to play a significant role in a child’s physical and mental health. When a child is born with a very low birth weight, they automatically have a greater risk of developing cognitive, emotional and behavioral problems as they get older.

Although poverty does not have the ability to directly alter human biological systems, it does directly increase the likelihood that children will have poor emotional and behavioral health (Murphey & Redd, 2014). Living in a poverty-stricken area has the ability to impose a psychological burden on those who inhabit the area. This is due to the continuous anxiety and stress from living in an area riddled with trauma and violence. In 2010, 115 studies that took place in 33 countries around the world were reviewed, and 80 percent of the studies showed that poverty comes with a higher rate of mental illness (Sohn, 2016). This study also showed that there is evidence leading to the idea that there is a higher level of depression in poorer countries than there is in wealthier ones. This aspect of poverty relates to the psychological principle associated with emotional dimensions. The principles of this dimensions reflect the importance of relationships, culture and community.

Children who live in poverty have less cognitive stimulation and enrichment when compared to wealthier children. This is because poor children have fewer learning resources such as books, and they are less likely to have access to a home computer or the internet, and they also have smaller areas inside their home designated for play (Hanson, et al., 2013). Lower-income parents also do not have as strong of a relationship with their children. This is because they tend to spend less time with their children, they are also less likely to visit a library or read with their children when compared to middle-income parents. Due to these differences, those who are raised in a poor environment have problems with learning, behavior, and both mental and physical health that has the potential to affect them into adulthood. Along with economic deprivation, stress, and limited cognitive stimulation from a lack of resources, poor nutrition, and environmental toxins exposure are all things that are correlated to poverty. All of these factors of poverty have the ability to negatively impact brain development. The development of children refers to the order of interdependent skills such as sensorimotor skills, cognitive language, and social-emotional functioning. The development of these skills depends on a child’s physical well-being, their family, and their own social network.

In a study done by ________, the brain development of children between five months and four years of age was measured. The children all came from economically diverse backgrounds, and their brain growth was measured in order to see the effects poverty has. The study showed that infants from low-income families has smaller volumes of gray matter and tissue necessary for processing information. These differences in volumes were found in both the frontal and parietal lobes of the brain (Hanson, et al., 2013). Gray matter is important in understanding problems in both cognition and behavioral regulation. Brain growth was also found to vary between those of various socioeconomic status’ (SES). Children who came from lower-income households had a slower brain growth during infancy and early childhood when compared to children from high-income households. These findings from ______ say that stressful and or traumatic life events that children in poverty have gone through such as a negative community atmosphere, or neglect in their own home has resulted in the development of a smaller hippocampus. The hippocampus is the center of emotion, memory, and the autonomic nervous system, and is the key structure involved in transforming short-term memory into long-term memory (Stallen, 2017). It also contains a high density of hormone receptors and is involved in how knowledge is obtained. These developmental challenges that are prevalent in impoverished children have also caused an increase risk in behavioral and emotional problems. These behavioral problems include aggression, the inability to get along with others, and attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) (Effects of Poverty, Hunger and Homelessness on Children and Youth, 2018). Also, emotional problems including anxiety, depression and or self-esteem are also prevalent in impoverished children. Poverty’s negative impacts begin before birth and accumulate throughout one’s entire life.

Growing up in poverty has led to various physical, behavioral, and emotional health problems for millions of children all over the world. As a child grows up in an impoverished community, there is a significant gap in learning, knowledge, and the social-emotional development when compared to those growing up in more fortunate circumstances. The National Longitudinal Study on Youth and Infant Health and Development Project followed both children who are poor, and children who are not, and examined the impact poverty has taken on children’s cognitive ability and educational attainment. Children that grew up in an impoverished community tend to perform worse in school, have decreased cognitive functioning, and have a higher risk for emotional and behavioral problems. Those living in poverty also had an increased likelihood of dropping out or failing to obtain a post-secondary education degree. The high school dropout rate for central cities is 14%, while the rate for the suburbs is 7%. Areas that have a very high poverty level also only had a graduation rate of 50%. Poverty has the ability to limit one’s educational attainment, but in order to escape poverty, it is necessary for one to receive an education. This has the ability to cause many impoverished people to become stuck in a cycle of poverty, resulting in a predetermine fate.

In order to escape poverty, one must have the motivation to do so, dealing with specifically the aspect of goal setting and intrinsic motivation. Intrinsic motivation is to engage in a behavior that is reward for one’s own sake in order to gain a sense of personal accomplishment. (Ranney) An intrinsic motivation must be present in one’s life in order to escape poverty due to the idea that children who are raised in low-income families have a greater risk for academic and social problems. The National Institute of Child Health and Human Development Early Child Care Research Network has determined that children living in an impoverished family have both lower cognitive and academic performances (Engle & Black, 2008). These children also display more behavioral problems due to a lack of stimulating behaviors and experiences. This can be because parents in low-income families typically have a limited education of their own. This has caused parents to neglect to create a stimulating environment for their children. An example of this is that parents tend to utilize language that is dominated by commands instead of explanations. Low-income families also have a tendency to use harsh parenting styles that are based off of control, which do not contribute to emotional development. This is one of the main causes of children from poor families being less likely to read than children from higher-income families (Engle & Black, 2008). As a result, approximately half of low-income children will end up being in the bottom fifth of income as adults (Chang, 2015), unknowingly allowing themselves to be stuck in a predetermined future because of their childhood and the environment that they grew up in.

As the number of children living in poverty continues to increase, mental illness will too. In order to decrease the amount of people in poverty, there must not only be economic solutions, but together, the government, communities of all socioeconomic status’, and families must adopt strategies that alter the poverty limits. For example, a major source of reduced cognitive ability among poor children is that they do not obtain the materials necessary to challenge themselves and expand upon what they are learning in school. An estimated 30 to 40% of children in the United States entering kindergarten are not ready for school (Engle & Black, 2008). This can be changed by simply giving all students equal access to books and other educational materials, all of which should be given to families by the government. Being prepared for school plays a major role in one’s ability to escape poverty in the United States, and inequality should not have the ability to hinder one’s education or cognitive development.

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