Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Economic Hardship in the Family of Origin and Children's Psychological Well-Being in Adulthood

Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Economic Hardship in the Family of Origin and Children's Psychological Well-Being in Adulthood

Article excerpt

Past research consistently indicates that poverty and economic hardship have negative consequences for children. Few studies, however, have examined whether these consequences persist into adulthood. This study addresses this gap by assessing whether economic resources in the family of origin have long-term effects on psychological well-being in adulthood. Specifically, we test two processes-one involving interpersonal processes in the family of origin, and the other involving children's socioeconomic attainment-that may help to explain the link between early economic factors and later well-being. Using 17-year longitudinal data from two generations (N = 589), we find evidence that economic hardship in the family of origin predicts later adult well-being through the parents' marital relationship, the parent-teen relationship, children's educational attainment, and children's earned income. Supplementary analyses suggest that economic hardship is particularly problematic when it is of long duration or when it occurs during adolescence.

Key Words: economic hardship, economic resources, marital discord, parent-child relationships, socioeconomic attainment, well-being.

Despite fluctuations from year to year, the proportion of families experiencing economic hardship has changed relatively little since 1970. Currently, about one out of seven families in the United States falls below 125% of the poverty threshold (U.S. Census Bureau, 2000, Table 760). Although many children who are poor (or near poor) live with single mothers, children living in two-parent families also are at risk of experiencing economic hardship if their parents have relatively little education, work at minimum wage jobs, experience periods of unemployment, or have work-related disabilities (U.S. Census Bureau, 2000, Tables 761 and 762).

The well-being of children in economically disadvantaged homes has been a topic of public and scholarly concern for some time. Reviews of this literature generally conclude that financial hardship increases the risk of a variety of problems for children, including academic failure, impaired cognitive development, behavioral and psychological disorders, and delinquency (Luthar, 1999; McLoyd, 1989; Seccombe, 2000). Few studies, however, have focused on the consequences of growing up in economically disadvantaged homes for the well-being of children after they reach adulthood. A longitudinal study by Axinn, Duncan, and Thornton (1997) found that family income during childhood was associated positively with the self-esteem of daughters (but not sons) at age 23. A second longitudinal study by Hauser and Sweeney (1997) found that experiencing poverty during adolescence was not related to depression in adulthood. Although economic resources in the family of origin may affect psychological adjustment in later life, the small number of studies on this topic makes it impossible to reach conclusions.

Our goal in the present study was to estimate the long-term effects of economic hardship in the family of origin on the psychological well-being of children after they have grown and left the parental home. We hypothesized two causal pathways through which economic hardship affects children's later emotional functioning. One pathway focuses on the effects of economic stress on the quality of family relationships, including the amount of discord between parents and the closeness of parent-child relationships. The second pathway focuses on the effects of economic resources on offspring's socioeconomic attainment. Our conceptual model is the first to give attention to both causal processes in linking economic factors in the family of origin to psychological well-being in the early adult years.


Conceptual Model

Our study draws on several perspectives: family stress theory (Conger, Elder, Lorenz, Simons, & Whitbeck, 1994), status attainment theory (Blau & Duncan, 1967; Featherman & Hauser, 1978), and empirical work linking socioeconomic attainment with a variety of positive psychological and health outcomes in adulthood (Ross & Huber, 1985; Ross & Wu, 1995). …

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