London: Poverty harms the brain and other body systems. How developmental science understands child poverty has changed a great deal in recent years. Poverty, for children, is not simply a matter of getting by with less of the essentials of life.
Particularly at its extremes, poverty can negatively affect how the body and mind develop, and can actually alter the fundamental architecture of the brain. Children who experience poverty have an increased likelihood, extending into adulthood, for numerous chronic illnesses, and for a shortened life expectancy.
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Poverty leads to poor physical, emotional, and behavioral health.
Even when poverty doesn’t directly alter human biological systems, we know that growing up poor increases the likelihood that children will have poor health, including poor emotional and behavioral health. Poverty works in multiple ways to constrict children’s opportunities and expose them to threats to well-being. Poor children are more likely to lack “food security,” as well as have diets that are deficient in important nutrients. Rates of several chronic health conditions, such as asthma, are higher among poor children. They are less likely to receive preventive medical and dental care.
Poverty can harm children through the negative effects it has on their families and the home environment.
While the strengths of poor families are often overlooked, parents experience numerous challenges that can affect their own emotional well-being, as well as their children’s. Poor parents report higher stress, aggravation, and depressive symptoms than do higher-income parents.
Parents with scarce economic resources face difficulty planning, preparing, and providing for their families’ material needs. Children in poor families have fewer books and other educational resources at home, and they are less likely to experience family outings, activities, and programs that can enrich learning opportunities. Their families are more likely to experience housing instability.
Direct evidence that additional income can improve children’s lives comes from several experimental evaluations: programs that increased family income showed improvements in children’s social and academic outcomes.