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Poverty & Child Development

by Laura Agadoni

Living in poverty can be an unending cycle. Being educated is probably the best way out, but children who live in poverty have a more difficult time in school. This is what professors Patrice L. Engle and Maureen M. Black concluded in a paper they wrote, “The Effect of Poverty on Child Development and Educational Outcomes.” Engle is a professor in the department of psychology and child development at California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo, and Black is a professor at the University of Maryland School of Medicine,

Learning Difficulties

Poverty affects a child’s ability to learn, beginning at 2 years and continuing through high school, according to Engle and Black. Children from low-income homes tend to be underexposed to stimulating educational experiences, and low-income parents generally do not read to their children as much as well-off parents do. When a child is not ready to enter school, he is behind from the start. If that child does not catch up soon, this gap widens as he moves through the grades. A child who struggles in school is more likely to drop out before graduation than a kid who does well. Landing a high-paying job is unlikely for a dropout, and so the poverty cycle continues.

Behavioral Problems

The parenting style of low-income families tends to be authoritarian or neglectful, partly because of the stress of being poor. Authoritarian parents tend to order their children around without explaining why. In addition, neglectful parents let their kids fend for themselves. Neither style is conducive to producing an emotionally healthy child with high self-esteem who feels loved and nurtured. Such a child might act out by behaving badly in the home and at school. Behavior problems could also lead to a child choosing friends with similar problems. Teenage pregnancy is also higher among low-income families.

Scientific Explanation

Clyde Hertzman, professor at the University of British Columbia’s School of Population and Public Health, stated in “The Globe and Mail” that an infant's brain adapts to the environment in which he lives. So if a child lives in a stressful, chaotic place, the brain needs to be on alert to distractions that could mean danger. The brain becomes less able to concentrate and focus on higher-level thinking, which is required for math, reading and problem solving. Hertzman also stated that a stressful, chaotic environment could play a role in a child developing attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

Health Issues

Being poor is not good for a child’s health. Low-income mothers have an increased chance of having low birth weight babies who might die in the first month of life, according to the Child Trends Research Brief. There might not be enough food generally, or not enough nutritious food in the home, which could result in stunted growth. Ironically, obesity is also a problem for low-income children, usually because they are not eating the right types of food. This poor start in life could lead to chronic health problems as children grow up, such as anemia and asthma.

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