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Effects of Poverty on Child Well-being
by karun kishor karki   
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Last edited: Thursday, February 06, 2014
Posted: Sunday, July 21, 2013

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The general theme of this paper is to synthesize the major consequences of poverty on child well-being in the United States.


 Effects of Poverty on Child Well-being in the USA

Poverty is a persistent problem throughout the world and has deleterious impacts on almost all aspects of family life and outcomes for children. Poverty in a broader sense can be explained as a situation where people lack social, economic, health, and educational resources to realize a set of basic functioning (Engle & Black, 2008). Although there is no single definition of poverty, most researchers do accept that any definition has to be understood, at least in part, in relation to particular social, cultural and historical contexts (Nolan & Whelan, 1997). In the United States, the U. S. Census Bureau’s poverty thresholds produce statistical estimates of poverty. For example, in 2011, an individual living alone is $11,484; for a family of two $14,710; for a family of three, $18,530; and $22,350 for a family of four (Addy & Wight, 2012). The families living below the federally defined (100%) poverty line are considered as poor families, whereas the families with incomes from the poverty line to 200 % above the poverty line are considered to be living on low incomes. In other words, families with incomes below this level are referred to as low income (i.e. $44,700 for a family of four;  $37,060 for a family of three and $29,420 for a family of two) (Addy & Wight, 2012) .

Poverty has adverse effects on child well-being because children are dependent on others, and they enter or avoid poverty by virtue of their family’s economic circumstances. Children cannot alter family economic conditions, at least until they approach adulthood. Child poverty appears to be especially sensitive to economic cycles, as it often takes two working parents to support a family, and a loss of work by one may put the family at risk of falling into poverty (Gabe, 2012). According to the United Nations Children’s Fund (2007), child well-being encompasses several dimensions including socioeconomic consequences, emotional development, academic achievement, and health development. The general theme of this paper is to synthesize the major consequences of poverty on child well-being.  

In 2010, 46.2 million people (15.1%) in the United States lived in poverty which was the largest number in the past 52 years since poverty estimates have been published (U. S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, 2012). Children in the United States represent 24 % of the population, and among all children, 44 % lived in low-income families and approximately one in every five (21 %) lived in poor families (Addy & Wight, 2012). More importantly, the number of children in single-parent families has been rising dramatically over the past four decades, causing considerable concern among policy makers and the public. As a result, the effects of growing up in single-parent families have been shown to go beyond economics, increasing the risk of children dropping out of school, disconnecting from the labor force, and becoming teen parents (Macartney, 2011). According to the U. S. Census Bureau (2010), 27.3% of single-parent families, and 29.9% single-mother families were living in poverty. Most single-mother families were with limited financial resources available to cover their children’s education, child care, and health care costs. According to Current Population Survey Annual Social and Economic Supplements (CPS ASCE, 2012), although, the median household income was decreasing, the poverty rate in 2011 was not statistically different from 2010 (DeNavas-Walt, Proctor, & Smith, 2012). The data indicated that Black, American Indian, and Hispanic children comprised a disproportionate share of the low-income population under age 18. Together, they represented 38 % of all children but more than one-half (54 %) of low-income children. They were also more than twice as likely to live in a low-income family compared to white and Asian children. The statistics also showed that 64% of Black children, and 63% of Hispanic and American Indian children lived in low-income families, whereas 31% of White and Asian children lived in low-income families. These statistical findings indicate such a huge and uneven child poverty rate among the ethnic minority populations in the United States.

A study by Donovan, Duncan, and Sebelius (2009) suggested that more than 30 % of minority children lived in poverty. Almost half of American children who were born to parents at the bottom rung of the income ladder remained poor adults. Overall these research findings indicate that child poverty rate in United States is rising significantly, which has adverse effects on child well-being. Child poverty is a significant concern to researchers and policymakers as it is linked to many undesirable outcomes, including reduced academic attainment, higher rates of non-marital childbearing, and a greater likelihood of health problems (Magnuson & Votruba-Drzal, 2009).

Socioeconomic consequences

The poor families with children lack the necessary financial resources to acquire goods and services that are necessary for children to grow normally. For instance, Ozawa, Joo, and Kim, J (2004) argued that poor parents could not provide much beyond food, clothing and housing and hence could not provide extra goods and services that were needed to give children opportunities to have life experiences to join the mainstream of society. Moreover, poor parents do not have time and monetary resources to be connected to networks of friends and people in the community and hence are forced to live in social isolation. For example, Stern, Smith, and Jang (1999) stated that poor parents were less likely to have accesses to support that were provided by formal social service agencies in the community; consequently, the children were pushed into such a lifestyle. The result is a vicious circle from economic deprivation to the unfavorable development of children to economic deprivation.  

A growing body of research found that children raised in the poor family were more likely to experience the exposure to domestic or community violence (Brooks-Gunn & Duncan, 1997), and greater environmental hazards (Cohen et al., 2003).  A study by Donovan, Duncan, and Sebelius (2009) found that those who experienced long-term poverty as children were much more likely to be poor as adults than those who were not poor during childhood. The reason was that adolescents who experienced poverty were more likely to earn low wages than their peers who grew up in less dire circumstances (Vartanian, 1999). Children who grew up in poverty were more likely to have low productivity and low earnings, which resulted declining gross domestic productivity. Duncan, Ludwig, and Magnuson (2007) estimated that the reduced productivity lowers the gross domestic product by 1.3 % annually. Another explanation for the influence of poverty on children’s socioeconomic outcomes was that children in low-income families and neighborhoods were less likely than children who grew up in more economically comfortable circumstances to be exposed to positive social norms in their lives and neighborhoods (Lynam et al., 2000).

Emotional development

Poverty has an adverse effect on child’s emotional development. Children who lived in poor families face a higher risk of emotional problems than children in families with more financial sources (Eamon, 2001). Several family researchers (e.g., Brooks-Gunn & Duncan, 1997; Cohen et al., 2003) found poverty as the root cause of unfavorable child developmental outcomes. For example, homicide rates were highest in areas of extreme poverty, and children exposed to such violence were at greater risk of psychosocial difficulties, such as internalizing behaviors (e, g., depression) and acting out behaviors (e. g., disobedience) (Hannon, 2005).

 Research findings of Eamon (2000) also suggested that increased acting out among children in poverty might reflect parents’ lower levels of emotional responsiveness to their children, more frequent use of physical punishment and lower quality home environment. As a result, children in such families had a greater risk of displaying behavior and emotional problems, such as disobedience, depression, impulsiveness, and difficulty getting along with peers (Elder, Van Nguyen, & Caspi, 1985). According to McLeod and Shanahan (1993), family poverty was associated with a higher risk for teen childbearing, less positive peer relations, and lower self-esteem. A study conducted by Moore, Glei, Driscoll, Zaslow, and Redd (2002) suggested that long-term poverty was associated with children’s inner feelings of anxiety, unhappiness, and dependence, while short-term poverty was associated with acting out, disobedience, and aggression.

Academic achievement

The effects of poverty on children have large and consistent associations with negative academic outcomes. When compared with children from more affluent families, poor children were more likely to have low academic achievement, to drop out of school, and to have health, behavioral, and emotional problems (Macartney, 2011). Aber, Bennett, Conley, and Li (1997) suggested that, because of economic limitations, poor parents had more difficulty providing intellectually stimulating rewards such as toys, books, adequate day-care, or preschool education that were essential for children’s development.

A study by Brooks-Gunn and Duncan (1997) found consistent negative associations between poverty during early childhood and academic outcomes, while studies measuring poverty during adolescence had been less consistent. The timing of poverty was seemed to be important for certain child outcomes. For example, children who experienced poverty during their preschool and early school yeas had lower rates of school completion than children and adolescents who experienced poverty only in later years. Thus, short-term poverty was found to be more strongly associated with lower achievement scores than long-term poverty for adolescents.

Health development

A substantial body of research (e.g., Evans & English, 2002) links poverty with lower levels of child well-being. A study by Moore, Redd, Burkhauser, Mbwana, and Collins (2009) found that children who were raised in poverty were at increased risk of a wide range of negative outcomes that were identified at birth and could extend into adulthood.  For example, poor children were more likely to be of low birth weight and died in the first month of life than children who were not born into poverty, and also it was found that experiencing poverty during the first three years of life was related to substandard nutritional status and poor motor skills.

Children from low-income families in the United States were more likely to experience poor nutrition or malnutrition (Fernald,  Kariger, Engle, & Raikes, 2009; Guthrie & Morton, 1999). Infants living in poor families were more likely to experience food insecurity (Bronte-Tinkew, Zaslow, Capps, & Horowitz, 2007), which includes not having enough to eat, having as inadequate diet. At the other extreme, poverty is also associated with obesity among children as they get older because, Moore et al., (2009) found that poor children were more likely than other children to have chronic health problems such as asthma and anemia. Health problems associated with poverty during early childhood were risk factors for developmental problems in later life, including problems in the achievement, cognitive, language, social-emotional, and physical domains (Evans & English, 2002).

The existing literatures show that childhood poverty, especially when it is deep and persistent, increases the chances that a child will grow up to be poor as an adult, thereby giving rise to the intergenerational transmission of economic disadvantage (Magnuson & Votruba-Drzal, 2009). Thus, poverty is considered a dominant theme within community development, and ongoing research agenda to understand the socially disadvantaged community, especially the vulnerable, and minority population. Although the problems faced by a local community may not completely be eliminated, the community development can build up confidence to tackle such problems as effectively as any local action can. Community development is meant to work at the level of local groups and organizations by developing skills, knowledge, and experience rather than at the individual level.   


There are no easy solutions to the formidable task of reducing child poverty or alleviating its consequences; however the possible options for policymakers as postulated by Moore, Redd, Burkhauser, Mbwana, and Collins, (2009) are more relevant to consider. Studies suggest that wage supplements, Earned Income Tax Credits (EITC), and other means of raising the income of low-income wage earners can be effective investments for parents, children, and the larger society to build on successful welfare-to-work initiatives. Even though, low-income families, who are getting the EITC refund and some kind of employment, majority of the poor families are facing material hardship. This gap needs to be filled up by enhancing efforts to boost income and to move individuals into the mainstream financial sector so that the EITC families can avoid material hardship (Lim & Livermore, 2010).

Policy makers should consider the expansion of the EITC by providing a higher rate of wage subsidies to families with three or more children. As a result, the combination of new children’s allowance program and the expanded EITC would be a powerful mechanism to reduce child poverty, increase the income-to-needs ratio and reduce income inequality (Ozawa, Joo, & Kim, 2004). As Ball and Moore (2008) suggested that effective approaches to support healthy marriage and prevent teen childbearing can contribute to strengthen marriages and to decrease births to teens and unmarried women. Further, there is a need to explore the individual and environmental characteristics which serve to mitigate the negative effects of teenage pregnancy.

Similarly, there is a need for research that examines potential sources of support or protective factors for children in single-mother families within home, school, and community environments.  Future researches need to further explore the role of single-mothers in the education of their children, and specific parenting practices for academic success despite the chronic poverty. Indeed, the relationship between parenting practices and academic achievement among high school students is significantly less known (Drummond & Stipek, 2004). Lastly, but not the least, although, many researchers have documented differences in academic performance between boys and girls in poor families, very few have attempted to discover reasons behind the performance discrepancies (Barajas, 2011). Future research could explore the discrepancies of academic performance between boys and girls in poor families.


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