Growing Up Poor; Poverty Packs Several Punches for Child Development

By Bower, Bruce | Science News, July 9, 1994 | Go to article overview

Growing Up Poor; Poverty Packs Several Punches for Child Development


Bower, Bruce, Science News


You might call them the "baby bust" generation. In 1991, the U.S. Census Bureau reported that 21.8 percent of the nation's children -- approximately 14.3 million youngsters -- lived in families with annual incomes below federal poverty thresholds. To qualify officially as poor that year, a family of four could have brought in no more than $13,924.

Census data also show that the U.S. child poverty rate has risen by one-third over the past 20 years. By the late 1980s, it hovered at two to four times the rates of child poverty in Canada and Western Europe. In sheer numbers, white children suffer the most poverty, but the greatest proportion of poverty occurs among black children.

Despite continued massive counting of the young and the poor, researchers know relatively little about the ways in which economic deprivation influences children's intellectual and emotional development. A series of new studies, published in the April CHILD DEVELOPMENT, attempts to burrow beneath the statistics and extract clues to how poverty can drag a child down or, in some inspiring cases, serve as a launching pad to a successful life.

The findings offer more reason for concern than optimism. By age 5, children in persistently or occasionally poor families have markedly lower IQs and display more fearfulness, anxiety, and unhappiness than never-poor youngsters, report Greg J. Duncan, a sociologist at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, and his coworkers. Unremitting poverty, most commonly observed in black families, shows a particularly powerful link to these factors, the researchers assert. In fact, they suggest, childhood stints in extremely poor families and neighborhoods may largely account for lags in black youngsters' IQ scores, compared to those of their white counter-parts.

"There is little doubt that poverty is scarring the development of our nation's children," Duncan and his associates conclude.

Their findings come from a longitudinal study of 895 low-birthweight infants who entered a health and child-care program run at eight medical centers in different parts of the country. Black younsters made up more than half the sample, followed in number by white and Hispanic children.

Family income predicted the IQs of 5-year-olds far more accurately than the measures of socioeconomic status usually employed in poverty research, such as ethnicity, mother's educational background, and number of parents in the household, Duncan's group holds.

Children living in poor neighborhoods also scored lower on IQ tests than did those with more affluent neighbors. Youngsters' behavior problems cited by their mothers, such as destroying belongings and throwing frequent tantrums, jumped considerably in poor families and neighborhoods.

Given the dangerous realities of merely getting to school or playing outside in impoverished city enclaves, many poor mothers may promote aggressive behavior in their children as a survival tactic, the researchers suggest. Moreover, most young participants had entered some form of day care by age 5 and may already have been pressured to fight and intimidate others by their peers, whose influence grows rapidly throughout childhood, they add.

The power of peers may partly feed off the deteriorating family life that often accompanies long-standing poverty, according to Patricia Garrett, a psychologist at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and her colleagues. Expressions of parental warmth, provision of safe surroundings, and exposure to a variety of learning and language experiences shrink markedly over time for children in families that cannot break out of poverty, they argue.

These same aspects of home life improve most dramatically for children born into the poorest families who later see household income rise, Garrett's group notes. When poor families climb the economic ladder, most parents use the extra dollars to enhance their children's lives, they find. …

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