Enduring Damage: The Effects of Childhood Poverty on Adult Health

Many of the costs of poverty are self-evident. Lack of reliable access to basic needs such as food, housing, and medicine can be profoundly disruptive in the near term. New research, however, indicates that poverty’s most damaging behavioral effects on young children manifest over time.

This research suggests that for the 25 percent of American children currently living in poverty, the effects of low socioeconomic status will persist long into adulthood even if their financial situation improves. In “Childhood Poverty, Cumulative Risk Exposure, and Mental Health in Emerging Adults,” published in the October 2013 Clinical Psychological Science journal, authors Gary Evans and Rochelle Cassells outline the extensive and devastating impact of childhood poverty. They find that children who experience poverty before the age of nine are at higher risk of developing behavioral disorders, greater morbidity for chronic disease, and even premature death. Furthermore, children who grow up in poverty are more prone to developing “learned helplessness” behaviors, factors that could underpin the educational achievement gaps between high-income and low-income groups.

Evans and Cassells followed nearly 200 participants in upstate New York, tracking subjects from the age of nine until 17. The researchers measured participants’ childhood “risk exposure” through physical and psychological factors, such as housing problems, family turmoil, and exposure to violence, that they anticipated might lead to greater levels of psychological impairment in adulthood. The researchers controlled for baseline mental health levels and adult income, allowing for a clearer picture of childhood poverty’s long-term effects.

Evans and Cassells find that the more time a child spends in poverty from birth to age nine, the greater the negative impact on physical and mental health in adolescence and early adulthood. In particular, children who grow up in poverty are at heightened risk for “externalizing” disorders such as behavior issues, conduct disorders, and ADHD. However, poverty has no discernable impact on “internalizing” disorders like anxiety and depression. Remarkably, these trends held regardless of adult income levels, indicating that the effects of early childhood poverty are long-lasting and not simply corrected by better financial security later in life.

The researchers also find that children who grow up in poverty are at greater risk of developing a behavior pattern known as “learned helplessness,” a condition in which children feel as if they have no power to change or control their circumstances. The researchers tested participants by assigning them two puzzles – one of which was unsolvable – and measuring the time it took for them to give up on the impossible puzzle in favor of the doable one. Lower-income children demonstrated greater levels of learned helplessness than their higher-income peers. The authors believe the cause of this disparity is environmental: children growing up in poverty find themselves in surroundings characterized by chaos, an absence of structure, and a perceived lack of control. Helplessness is then conditioned by continued exposure to uncontrollable, unpredictable stimuli.

Evans and Cassells believe that learned helplessness might be the key to another critical poverty issue – education. “Greater helplessness in children may be a critical but understudied reason for ubiquitous income-achievement gaps,” they argue; children who feel as if they have no control over the circumstances of their own lives may be less motivated to put forth the effort to succeed in school.

Early childhood poverty places children at greater risk of exposure to negative developmental factors at a critical time for cognitive development. The results are deeply damaging, and effects are often carried into adulthood regardless of improved financial situation later on.

As approximately one in four American children currently live in poverty, the collective impact of this phenomenon will be inescapable for decades to come. Future social policy must effectively account for the full human costs of poverty – costs that are not always visible to the naked eye.

Feature Photo/cc: (pablodf)

Matt Repka
Matt Repka is a staff writer for the Chicago Policy Review and is an MPP student at the Harris School of Public Policy. He is interested in education and urban policy. He has also been published in The Tufts Daily.

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