Poverty or economic insecurity manifests itself directly and indirectly on child development. Here are just a few ways in which poor children suffer that privileged kids do not. In this article I choose not to dwell obvious effects of children’s environments such as the fact that fewer books lead to lower educational attainment. These factors are important and will be described in the next post, but in this section I try to focus on the link between poverty and physiological outcomes.
- Physiological development: As long as poverty is viewed as a voluntary condition that people can pull themselves out of by their own means we will continue to hear vacuous comments about presumed causal relationships that have little to do with reality. One of these myths is that the prevalence of obesity among low-income groups proves America doesn’t have a poverty problem. “They can’t be poor (undernourished) because they’re overweight. They must be lazy and not want to work.” goes the rumors. Too often we hear poor people described this way because it seems to make sense in a very superficial way. In countries like the U.S. where starchy food are cheaper than more fibrous and protein rich foods childhood obesity more often goes along with poverty than affluence because it’s only foods they can afford. Poor children often grow up in unsafe neighborhoods that are ‘food deserts’, making access to healthy foods outdoor play and exercise unattainable. Furthermore, these children are more likely to eat and inhale pesticides and chemicals that in some studies have displayed endocrine disrupting properties (xenoestrogens). Precocious puberty has been linked to both higher levels of body fat as well as estrogen acting chemicals. Foods that kick our children’s hormones off kilter at an early age are not limited to the poor – in fact adolescents now reach puberty a full year earlier than 15 years ago – but natural, organic foods and products are more often out of their price range.
- Brain development: A study recently published in JAMA Pediatrics finds that poverty has a significant negative effect on brain development. In a study that monitored 6-12 year-old children since their preschool years, poor children presented with anomalous brain scans compared to the non-poor. Those who were exposed to poverty early in life had smaller volumes of white and cortical gray matter as well as smaller hippocampus and amygdala, which has been associated with behavior and learning problems.
- Parenting: The study above attributes the lower brain mass to be a direct effect of the parents’ stress levels. Economic stress tends to shift the pendulum in the direction of more authoritarian parenting practices and will more frequently result in child abuse. One study indicates that just since the recession child abuse has increased six-fold. In one experiment, which brings associations to the famous marshmallow test, the children were given a wrapped gift not to be opened until the researchers were ready for them. Poor parents displayed less patience and nurturance towards their children during this waiting game. Says Joan L. Luby, a child psychiatrist at Washington University and principal investigator of the study, “Parents can be less emotionally responsive for a whole host of reasons. They may work two jobs or regularly find themselves trying to scrounge together money for food,” The prevalence of “high-frequency spanking” among mothers increases six-fold and can be linked to elevated risk of abuse (unless high frequency spanking in itself is considered abuse) The longitudinal study, which followed a random sample of 5000 families over 9 years, found a strong negative relationship between consumer confidence and high frequency spanking. These results indicate that the recession was associated with parents’ high frequency use of discipline behaviors that may indicate risk for abuse. Since the recession also tends to affect the number of recorded cases negatively as the institutions that normally report these are more likely to be underfunded, there is great chance that the documented increase is on the low end. One of the most fascinating opportunities in this age of big data is that we can collect and analyze peoples’ most honest queries – the questions that they ask our modern-day oracle, Google. Google intern Seth Stephens-Davidowitz, did just that, and found a significant increase in queries of this heart-wrenching variety: “Why did my father beat me?” What was revealed was a direct relationship between abuse-related Google-queries and economic stress. Stephens-Davidowitz says that on weeks that unemployment claims rose, these searches rose as well.
Update September 2014: Thankfully the over all childhood poverty rate is slowly decreasing as more parents are getting jobs. However, due to the increasing economic gaps between states and regions, even the recovery is uneven, leaving many of the poorest behind.
These are only some of the ways in which the current high level of poverty will affect the youngest generation. To read how poverty affects education and consumer patterns, please follow the next section.