About 1 in 4 children in the United States spend some or even all of their early childhood in poverty, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau. What does this early exposure to poverty mean for mental health outcomes when these children enter their teens and early 20s?
Psychological scientists Gary Evans and Rochelle Cassells set out to explore this question, using data from almost 200 participants involved in a longitudinal study of rural poverty, cumulative risk, and child development.
As they predicted, participants who spent more time in poverty in early childhood showed signs of worse mental health in emerging adulthood. Specifically, time spent in poverty was associated with higher levels of externalizing symptoms and learned helplessness at age 17.
And the long-term association between early poverty and later mental health were accounted for, at least in part, by cumulative exposure to psychosocial risk factors (e.g., violence, family turmoil, separation from family) and physical risk factors (e.g., noise, crowding, substandard housing).
Evans and Cassells note that the process by which these risk factors accumulate is dynamic, “with certain experiences precipitating other events and circumstances that further pressure the adaptive capacities of children and their families as they contend with poverty.”
The burden of poverty comes with significant financial and human costs worldwide, but the researchers argue that continued research will yield important insights that can help to alleviate this burden:
“Psychology has much to contribute in thinking about how poverty can modify critical dimensions of the personal, familial, and community contexts that children need to thrive.”
Evans, G.W., & Cassells, R.C. (2013). Childhood poverty, cumulative risk exposure, and mental health in emerging adults. Clinical Psychological Science. DOI: 10.1177/2167702613501496