Childhood Poverty Linked With Worse Mental Health in Emerging Adulthood

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


In my opinion, the children who live in poverty are linked with worse mental health because they are majorly effected by their living conditions during a crucial part of their development. During childhood, the body and brain are developing very quickly and with the lack of the required food, nutrients, and living conditions, the child can not develop to their potential. They may not have the resources necessary to develop and reach milestones like children who do not like in poverty.

This article caught my eye because we are talking about mental illness in my psychology class. it is amazing how being raised in poverty can be so detrimental to your life. it seems like if you are raised like that you either make it big or are doomed to life in poverty due to the helpless feeling. it is quite interesting but not all that surprising that being raised with a poor foundation eventually will effect you.

I just think it’s interesting but not very surprising how being raised in poverty can really affect mental health as an adult. If you’re not raised in poverty, things just always seem easier to you and you don’t worry as much about things. But I feel like if you live in poverty as a child, you have to basically learn everything the hard way and you learn to just basically give in and give up, so I definitely agree with the whole learned helplessness statement.

This is a great article. It brings up a lot of good points. I understand and believe that poverty may affect your mental health later in life. But there are other factors. Some really big ones that everyone can’t avoid would be stress, hereditary, and age. A question I have is what kind of mental health problems. Would they some type of anxiety disorder or major depression. Even though poverty may be a factor there are tons of other factors that my cause poor mental health.

I find this to be quite interesting and I want to learn more about the topic. I am wondering what type of metal health issues arrive after being raised in poverty. I do agree that a persons environment can affect there mental health. In addition to environment, genetics plays a very important role in future mental illness. I also agree with the fact that violence, abuse, and separation from family causes metal problems. For example, researchers in the past have investigated dysfunctional parenting as possible contributors to schizophrenia. Although they researched family environment compared to the metal illness, there isn’t a single psychological factor for the cause of schizophrenia. All in all, I do believe that the children raised in poverty could trigger a mental issue in the future.

One essential qualification of mostly all metal disorders is that the behavioral or psychological symptoms are characterized by severe withdrawal from the prevailing social and cultural norms. A child living in poverty is likely to experience less socialization and be subjected to a privation of stimulation. For a child, developing under the effects of poverty, he or she may be handicapped later in life when it comes to dealing with certain situations of mainstream society. This may leave him or her with the sensation of added extra stress as well as a feeling of isolation. Of course these are underlying causes for many psychological disorders. All types of depression and even schizophrenia has been linked by researchers to be caused from stress. However there are other factors for developing schizophrenia, a stressful event or lack of positive stimulation can trigger the mental disorder. Obviously anyone may develop a mental disorder in adulthood, but perhaps one could argue, growing up in a rather lacking environment could increase the risk of an adult onset mental disorder.

It seems it is not poverty per se, but all of the accompanying issues that surround growing up in an impoverished household. A major concern would likely be the relationship between the parent and child – which would probably be compromised by all the issues mentioned such as separation, violence and turmoil. Children need a healthy attachment with a parent as a means of promoting their mental health, perhaps if this bond was in place or could be created with another adult, some of the issues of poverty on children would be lessened.

This article discusses the importance of the attachment relationship:

I grow up in a Lower Middle Class Neighborhood in Houston, Tx ( the Class Cast System which is almost non-existent; today you either “Have or Have not”) our every means of existence literally was pay check to pay check leaving very little room for a financial emergency. We as children were taught self pride and we took care of what we had and from the time we stepped foot outside our doors we knew we were a representation of our family, mainly the mother’s character was on the line which had to be preserved at all times, this was even true for single parent homes in our area as well. Maybe I’m Old School but I feel that a person can rise above the feeling of hopelessness and he or she does not have to a product of their environment. This can only be obtained by families getting back to the basics and teaching the value of life and the importance if their place in it.

As one of the only 2 people coming from poverty lower income houses commenting (an assumption based on how everyone phrased their comments((no hate please)) I feel I can provide some insight…My family and I went without electricity, running water, and heat for six months (the without heat was in severe cold winter months too). We couldn’t pay our rent for over 2 years and if it weren’t for our very generous and kind landlord we would have been homeless. As a child of poverty I suffer from mental health issues. It is about the conditions living in poverty put you in…strained abusive family, being different from or being unable to hang out with friends, worse education (luckily I was just severly poor in one of the richest counties in America so my education actually didn’t suffer as much…I’m not in college yet…but i know that despite my 3.9 GPA and hard work and AP/Honours courses I wont be able to get enough scholar ships to afford it)….and the many other issue pointed out in this article, the comments, and many other articles on the interweb…..BUT poverty itself does play a role. Children see poverty and they are firced to grow up…most children barely know taxes until they have to start paying them…most don’t think about the cost of everyday things. but children of poverty..are forced to step into reality at a significantly younger age…and know it’s not the conditions caused by this that cause mental illnes (well actually it is but that’s not the point i’m trying to make) It’s the poverty itself and the realization that nothings free and that simply because of cost you wont be able to succeed like your peers. That’s not a condition of poverty..that is poverty and a fact of life for those struck by it…Like i siad I wont be able to go to college nd I’m not a skinny model or a gifted singer (twin posses those nice qualities) I’m not a prodigy or a amazing sports player…I have nothin above avergae to offer to society so theirs no way in my future that I can ever succeed in the way everyone else will.

I can remember being in kindergarten and worrying about the teacher asking for lunch money, or having to present the yellow free lunch ticket that was a clear sign to other kids. I remember being that young and not ever wanting to invite friends over to our shorty, filthy, roach infested dump of a trailer. I noticed the difference in clothes I wore vs other kids and so much more. I would stress over any kind of money related situation at school, anything from them selling picture packages to having a field trip where money was involved. Fast forward- I was in high school and graduating with scholarships for various things to various places. None of them payed for living expenses, though several of them were what you would call a full ride. There was uncertainty about how I was going to get money for things listed pencils and food. Well, I did not accept those for that fear and instead got something with a guaranteed income. I am happy where I am today, but whereas mos kids don’t even think about money until they are teens or preteens, much less going around cutting grass to put towards the light bill or so that you can buy a few groceries or a warm sweater to wear to school. These stresses are all too common of poor kids. Most kids would be ok with the uncertainty because they had never really experienced hunger so it wasn’t that big a deal or they knew they could swallow their pride and call daddy if it got bad enough. I absolutely knew that I could only rely on myself. Most folks don’t think much of it to ask a friend to spot them a few bucks for lunch or something for any silly reason like their new debit card hadn’t arrived yet, but I can’t bring myself to do that. I am the first person to foresee others in this kind of situation and offer to treat them to lunch, but cannot admit it of myself. I will find some reason to stay at work or not go. How I vs. a normal kid tackle these mundane situations is very different. I am now 35 and am quite stable, but the effects never go all the way away.

I walked in your shoes and can relate to your story. My childhood was in the Appalachian Mountains of the 1950’s and 60’s in a dilapidated unpainted farmhouse with only 4 rooms. We did have water, cold only and had to heat water for our baths in an old laundry tub.. and our only source of heat and cooking was from wood or coal burning stoves. No indoor plumbing only an outhouse toilet. We lived mostly on pinto beans and cornbread. Food stamps didn’t come out til 1968 and what a relief that was. Like you I was ashamed of my having to ask for free lunch at school, field trips, my hand me down clothes, no phone or TV, no car, etc. I still think it influenced my major depression disorder diagnosed at the age of 50.

Poverty has a major impact in the upbringing of a child, notwithstanding the rolenof the parent as a key contributing factor by making sure the child is protected from all forms of violence that may interferes with the child’s upbringing e.g. mental and emotional wellbeing.The key factors of poverty in families are low income, poor housing, domestic violence, abused of substances and deprived areas and lots more to do with class stratification e.g. upper class, middle class and the lower class. Poverty is rated according to our economic backgrounds. However, all mensured above is all facts of poverty. I believe the world could target poverty if politicians spend less on political campaign and help those who are affected by poverty.

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