Myth: Poverty Doesn’t Have a Lasting Impact on Children

Poverty has a striking impact on every aspect of a child’s life both while they are a child and after they reach adulthood. Here is a short list of just a few of the different ways children are impacted by poverty long term.

Educational Impact

“More than 1 in 5 kids in North Carolina are growing up in families that can’t give them a good start to in life because they are paid wages too low to afford the basics," NC Policy Watch found. Children in poverty are at a disadvantage compared to children who do not grow up in poverty. The clearest reasons are financial. Even with both parents working, some families must choose between paying rent and eating a full meal for the next few weeks. A parent with an underpaying job can’t afford to put their child in sports, performing arts, or any other extracurricular activity because they can’t afford anything except the bare minimum. A parent who must work multiple jobs a day is not around to raise their child and give them the emotional support they need. Some families rely on their teenage children to provide additional income to support the family. This kind of hand-to-mouth living situation forces adults and children into a “scarcity mindset”. They struggle to think of the future because they are so focused on surviving for the next few days or weeks. In this mindset, neither adult nor child are thinking about college, careers or higher achievements. Even if they are, they often feel that these dreams are unattainable to them, and their lot in life is to just try to survive.

Chronic absenteeism – missing more than 10% of the school year – is also higher in low-income areas. “The most alarming part is that multiple studies across various states show kindergartners to have the highest rate of absenteeism outside of high school students. Educators and policymakers have known for years that falling behind before 3rd grade has a high correlation not just with high school dropout rates, but with incarceration rates as well. Children this young are not playing hooky or uninterested in learning—five minutes alone with any 1st grader yields more questions than you can answer without jumping on Wikipedia. The reasons these children stay home can all be traced to poverty.” (Education Week) Falling behind in school greatly impacts a child’s life trajectory from dropping out of school to incarceration to future earnings to the likelihood of them living in poverty later in life.

This is why programs like Head Start play such a vital role in children’s lifelong education, and why most of North Carolina’s Community Action agencies run Head Start and Early Head Start programs. Head Start prepares low-income children under 5 for school through education, health and other services. Although the focus of Head Start is on young children, each family enrolled has case manager that aids helps everyone make the adjustments needed and can offer resources to the entire family.

Emotional and Mental Impact

“Perhaps more damaging in the long term are the findings on how people feel about themselves when they’re in poverty. They are less confident in their ability to succeed, leading to decreased professional and educational attainment, depression and anxiety. The study also reported a 'negative self-stereotyping' effect, whereby people in long-term poverty absorbed the prevalent media stereotypes of people on benefits or facing unemployment as being 'low in warmth and low in competence'. Believing themselves to be fundamentally flawed, any achievement is tempered by a lack of confidence and subconscious self-loathing.” (How being poor can lead to negative spiral of fear and self-loathing, The Guardian) Children are especially susceptible to these patterns of negative thoughts and stereotypes.

Children who are raised in this environment are at risk of developing learned helplessness – “a condition in which children feel as if they have no power to change or control their circumstances. […] 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.” (Chicago Policy Review) Living in this kind of chaotic environment tends to cause toxic stress, which damages the learning, behavior and health of people living in it. For children, the effects span their lifespan.

The combination of low self-confidence, learned helplessness and toxic stress created by poverty alters brain anatomy and connectivity.This makes children in poverty more prone to childhood depression and anxiety.

All of these emotional and mental impacts have long-term, widespread impacts on all aspects of a child’s life. Psychiatric Times also found that “Poverty in childhood is associated with lower school achievement; worse cognitive, behavioral, and attention-related outcomes; higher rates of delinquency, depressive and anxiety disorders; and higher rates of almost every psychiatric disorder in adulthood.”

Physical Impact

Poverty has a number of physical impacts on children in poverty. Nutritionally, children in poverty are more likely to experience food insecurity, which often affects the child’s ability to grow, fight disease, their behavior and cognitive thinking. According to the Food Research and Action Center, “Food-insecure and low-income people can be especially vulnerable to poor nutrition and obesity, due to additional risk factors associated with inadequate household resources as well as under-resourced communities. This might include lack of access to healthy and affordable foods; cycles of food deprivation and overeating; high levels of stress, anxiety, and depression; fewer opportunities for physical activity; greater exposure to marketing of obesity-promoting products; and limited access to health care.”

Related | The Link Between Poverty and Obesity

“Poverty itself can be dangerous. Children growing up poor are more likely to be injured in accidents, and five times more likely to die due to accidents," according to the American Academy of Pediatrics.

The physical environment children live in also have a great impact on their physical life. Food Research and Action Center says, “During childhood, low-income children are more likely to experience food insecurity, obesity, tobacco exposure, lead exposure, poor oral health, poor growth (e.g., low birth weight, short stature), asthma, developmental risk, learning disabilities, poor academic outcomes, behavioral and emotional problems, unintentional injury, and physical inactivity. Low-income adolescents also are more likely to engage in health compromising behaviors, such as smoking.” These external factors can be as toxic to the developing brain as drug or alcohol abuse because of the high and continuous releases of cortisol associated with toxic stress. This effect can begin in pregnancy is the woman is experiencing long-term high stress, and continues into their childhood, which further sabotages the development of the brain.

Community Action agencies combat these environmental factors by providing various home improvement and self-sufficiency programs to the parents. These programs help with money management, education, and job goals. As the parents learn new skills, the home environment for the child improves.