10 September 2009

Understanding Why Poverty Harms Children and How to Fix It

In Shelby County roughly half of all children live in poverty during the critical years between birth and kindergarten entry. This start in life matters for the students and adults that these children will become. This is because children growing up in poverty lack access to the ingredients that make for positive early childhood development.

Resources and relationships are the primary ingredients that shape a child’s intellectual, emotional and relational skills. Further, the skills that infants and toddlers acquire in their first years of life are the building blocks that all of their later life learning and abilities will be built on (National Scientific Council on the Developing Child, 2007). Poverty is one of the strongest known correlates to negative developmental outcomes (Brooks Gunn et al., 1994; G. J. Duncan & J. Brooks-Gunn, 1997; Lee and Burkham, 2002; Hart & Risley, 1995). However, very few people who research child development attempt to discern why poverty so consistently harms children’s development. Said another way, what is it about the experience of growing up in poverty that is so bad for children?

An impoverished childhood is literally like limiting a cake baker to flour and water. Poverty is about more than just a lack of financial resources. Meeting children’s developmental needs requires relationships, interaction and active give and take and this is no less true for children in poverty than for middle-class kids.

Parents raising their children in poverty are not poor parents. Rather, they are parents who lack some or all of the resources their children need to thrive. Helping children and families escape poverty and its devastating effects requires the extension of resources and relationships to parents and their children. Lest we forget, we are all affected by the devastating consequences of poverty on children’s development when they enter school unable to participate, fall behind, fail out, become involved with crime and drugs and then continue the cycle by raising their children in poverty.

In 2001, a book entitled Bridges Out of Poverty explored what it means to live in poverty, how living in poverty shapes people’s thoughts, choices and actions and what it requires to help people move permanently from poverty into the middle class. The authors define poverty as “the extent to which an individual does without resources” (Payne et al., 2001). They argue that poverty may include the absence of the following resources:

- Financial – Having the money to purchase good and services;

- Emotional – Being able to choose and control emotional responses, particularly to negative situations, without engaging in self-destructive behavior. This is an internal resource and shows itself through stamina, perseverance and choices;

- Mental – Having the mental abilities and acquired skills (reading, writing, computing) to deal with daily life;

- Spiritual – Believing in divine purpose and guidance;

- Physical – Having physical health and mobility;

- Support Systems – Having friends, family, and backup resources available to access in times of need. These are external resources;

- Relationships/Role Models - Having frequent access to adult(s) who are appropriate, who are nurturing to the child, and who do not engage in self-destructive behavior;

- Knowledge of Hidden Rules - Knowing the unspoken cues and habits of a group; and

- Coping strategies – Being able to engage in procedural self-talk and the mindsets that allow issues to be moved from the concrete to the abstract. It is the ability to translate from the personal to the issue (Payne et al, 2001, pg. 11).


Hart, Betty and Todd Risley. (1995). Meaningful Differences in the Everyday Experiences of Young American Children. Baltimore: Brookes Publishing Co.

Lee, Valerie E. and David T. Burkham. (2002). Inequality at the Starting Gate: Social Background Differences in Achievement as Children Begin School. Washington D.C.: Economic Policy Institute.

Duncan, G.J., Jeanne Brooks-Gunn, and P.K. Klebanov. (1994). Economic Deprivation and Early Childhood Development. Child Development. 65,296-318

Duncan, G. J. & J. Brooks-Gunn (Eds.), Consequences of growing up poor. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.

National Scientific Council on the Developing Child. (2007). The Timing and Quality of Early Experiences Combine to Shape Brain Architecture: Working Paper #5. http://www.developingchild.net

Payne, Ruby K., Phillip E. DeVol and Terie Dreussi Smith. (2001). Bridges Out of Poverty: Strategies for Professionals and Communities. Highlands, TX: aha! Process, Inc.

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