Growing Up Poor

By Powers, Mike | Human Ecology Forum, Summer 1996 | Go to article overview

Growing Up Poor

Powers, Mike, Human Ecology Forum

One of the beliefs about growing up in America is that anyone can accomplish anything they set out to do, regardless of the obstacles that stand in their way. But research is showing that for children growing up in poverty, the reality is not quite as rosy as the dream.

In the United States today, children are more likely to fall below the poverty line than any other age group, including the elderly. Approximately one in five children under the age of 18 and one in four under the age of six live in families whose annual income falls below the federal poverty threshold ($15,141 for a two-parent family with two children and $9,137 for a single parent with one child, $11,186 with two children, and $14,335 with three children). Between 1970 and 1992, poverty rates for children increased almost 50 percent. Welfare expenditures more than tripled.

The ramifications of such widespread poverty are quickly becoming apparent. Poverty has been shown to be associated with lower IQ scores, poorer school performance, and increased odds of dropping out of school. It also increases the chances of experiencing poverty as an adult, in turn leading to another generation of impoverished children.

Associate Professor Elizabeth Peters of the Department of Consumer Economics and Housing has studied the effects of poverty on educational attainment. Her research has found that being poor - combined with additional factors such as family background and characteristics, the educational attainment of parents, and sources of family income - can have a significant effect on how far children go in school and their overall aptitudes in math and reading.

"The effects of income and other factors on child and adolescent outcomes have important implications for programs affecting poor children, "says Peters, who also is a principle investigator with the Family and Child Well-Being Research Network, a national group of scholars whose work is funded by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.

For her research, Peters used data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth. The survey began its data collection in 1979 with a sample of adolescents, ages 14 to 21.

"I chose to look at kids who were 14 and 15 in 1979 because I wanted to make sure I had a group who were still living with their parents," she says. "That way we could measure parental income and other family background characteristics."

In 1980 all the adolescents in the survey were given the Armed Forces Qualification Test, a measure of cognitive achievement used by the armed forces to determine enlistment eligibility. The subjects in Peters's sample were 15 and 16 at the time.

"We looked at them again in 1989 when they were 24 and 25 to see how far they had progressed with their education," Peters says. "I'm also looking at their experiences in the labor market and their earnings, based on data collected in 1990."

One goal of Peters's research was to measure family income over time. Most previous studies had only looked at income at one point in time.

"Income is extremely variable, and people go in and out of poverty quite frequently, especially those families right on the edge," she says. "We wanted to see if income proved to be a more important factor when measured over time. We were able to measure it over three years."

She found that educational attainment and test scores rose in direct correlation to increases in income.

Peters also points out that she was measuring family income during adolescence rather than during childhood. She found that although income is still important in adolescence, it is less so than during early childhood.

Various family characteristics proved to be important to children's educational attainment. Education of the parents was one, as demonstrated by the higher test scores and higher levels of education exhibited by subjects whose parents had progressed further in school. …

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