How is family poverty related to childhood development?
It is well documented that family poverty has a negative effect on childhood development (Horgan, 2007) but the many variations in how family poverty is related to childhood development via various pathways is of great importance to parents, health and education professionals as they work to improve the outcomes for children; “maximising the opportunities open to them – improving their life chances and changing the odds in their favour.” – Every child matters.
When considering how family poverty is related to childhood development, it is firstly important to define poverty. Engle & Black note that this is a difficult task and question whether it should be ‘defined in economic terms, or as part of a broader social disadvantage’.
In economic terms, the UK government, the European Union and many other countries use 60 per cent of median household income as the poverty ‘threshold’. (Poverty and Social Exclusion poverty.ac.uk) although by their own admission ‘without validation from direct measures of people’s living standards, is essentially arbitrary’.
Sen describes poverty as ‘capability deprivation’ and argues that we should take a more ‘activity-oriented view of human beings’. These activities can vary from ‘physical ones as being well nourished, being adequately clothed and sheltered, avoiding preventable morbidity, and so forth, to more complex social achievements such as taking part in the life of the community, being able to appear in public without shame.’
As a result of this, when considering how family poverty is related to childhood development this essay will consider both direct economic effects and also the effects of broader social disadvantage.
Similarly it is also difficult to define ‘childhood development’. Indeed Engle et al note that ‘there are no globally accepted indicators for child development’ They do however concede that ‘child development is often measured through individual assessments of developmental changes in multiple domains (eg, cognitive, language and social-emotional)’. One measure of cognition is academic achievement and this is used by various studies as a measure of child outcome (CITE).
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One of the main reasons for family poverty can be the family unit itself. Fiori (2005) states that “Economic theory predicts that the two-parent family is among the best-functioning forms of capitalist society because it allows for the provision of household services by one partner and economic resources by the other, and as such it is an efficient system for maximising utility and the human capital of children”
Consequently, supporting evidence has found that children from a lone parent family generally have a poorer academic outcome but do not fare poorer psychologically (Mclanahan and Sandefur, 1994). The reason for this is often attributed to the ‘pathology of matriarchy’ hypothesis (Moynihan) which suggests that the absence of a father is destructive to children, particularly boys, because children will lack the economic resources, role models, discipline, structure and guidance that a father provides.
The effects of family structure on family poverty and subsequently child outcome is of high importance, with marriage emerging high on the U.S. policy agenda in recent years as a tool for improving child outcomes (Nock) and marriage allowance in the UK allowing a person to reduce their spouses’ tax bill if one partner earns an income below the personal allowance limit (CITE), again alleviating financial stresses which can have a negative effect on child outcome.
Hann et al (2003) found that when controlling for income, single-mother families were not significantly different from two-parent families for child outcome. This suggests that it is family poverty itself (that typically results from family disruption) that is the major explanation for children’s lower attainments.
Direct effects of family poverty affect childhood development by increasing risk factors, limiting protective factors and reducing opportunities for stimulation and enrichment. Children from low-income families are more likely to receive insufficient nutrition and also be overweight, two factors commonly associated with food insecurity (Cook).
The amount of families in the UK struggling to buy basic items such as food is increasing. The Trussel Trust reported that their 445 foodbanks fed 913,138 people nationwide from 2013-2014 and of those helped, 330,205 were children.’ A lack of a balanced diet can affect children’s development both directly
and indirectly. Innis has shown that fatty acids such as those found in certain types of fish and nuts assist healthy brain development and reductions in these fatty acids is associated with cognitive and behavioural impairments; the effect of family poverty on childhood development via a poor diet is a very real possibility even in a country such as the United Kingdom.
Another direct effect of poverty is the fact that parents in low-income families often have lower levels education and this has a negative impact on their ability to provide a positive, intellectually stimulating environment for their children (Coleman). Hart & Todd found that children from professional families that were strongly associated with higher parent education levels and higher family income were spoken to more than children from working class or welfare recipient families and so had a larger cumulative vocabulary.
By the age of just three, Hart & Todd observed “the cumulative vocabulary for children in the professional families was about 1,100 words. For children from working class families, the observed cumulative vocabulary was about 750 words and for children from welfare-recipient families it was just above 500 words”. Hart & Todd conclude that the most important element of a child’s language development is quantity of conversation and thus it is easy to see how in a ‘traditional’ two-parent family (as previously mentioned) the division of responsibilities allows for increased time to talk to children.
Hart & Todd also found that children from professional families heard a higher ratio of encouragements to discouragements than their working class and welfare-supported counterparts. Henderlong & Lepper found that encouragement is beneficial to the intrinsic motivation of a child (provided it is perceived as sincere) and this will also have a positive effect on child development.
Baumrind (1971) defined three parenting types: permissive: parents who are more responsive than demanding; authoritarian: parents who are demanding and directive, but not responsive, and authoritative: parents who are both demanding and responsive. Hoff et al found that in all cultures parents with lower socio-economic-status (SES) are more likely to use ‘authoritarian’ parenting styles than those in higher SES brackets. They are also less likely to be nurturant or to supervise their children adequately, and more likely to use inconsistent, erratic and harsh discipline (Elder et al., 1985); adversely affecting child development.
As well as the direct effects of family poverty on child development, as suggested by Engle and Black it is also important to consider moderated effects of poverty and how these can vary across characteristics of families and children.
Whilst considering how family poverty affects childhood development, it is important to fully consider the many varying reasons as to why a family may be experiencing poverty.
Some of the varying reasons found by Hobcraft for family poverty include: non-traditional structures; lone parents and parents in reconstituted families, households where no adult is in employment or are in poorly paid employment, households headed by a teenage parent, households that include a sick or disabled child, have a child or children under five or have a large number of children.
Given this, it is quite understandable that families can find themselves in a state of poverty through no fault of their own. However, their background will affect how they deal with this experience of poverty and more importantly how this poverty will affect the development of any children. Parents of children who are poorly educated or have poor decision making skills could find it more difficult to protect their children from the effects of poverty than families who are better educated, with rational decision making skill and in a similar situation.
Cooper & Stewart demonstrate using the Family Investment Model that parents who are better educated or have more money are able to financially invest in their children more, either because they have more disposable income or because they choose to forgo other expenses for the sake of purchasing their children educationally enhancing materials such as books.
This is supported by the findings of Davis-Kean who found that family income and education had a positive impact on parental educational expectations and resultantly reading (which is strongly correlated to child achievement), with children reading more for pleasure and having more books in the house. Similarly the work of Bradley, Whiteside and Mundfrom that found that children living in poverty who were showing early signs of resilience compared with other children also living in poverty received ‘more responsive, accepting, stimulating and organised care’.
Another way that family characteristics moderate the link between family poverty and child development is via social selection. Conger & Donnellan consider poverty as “…a constellation of outcomes that are potentially influenced by individual differences in traits such as intelligence and personality” that subsequently affects childhood development. Mayer (1997) proposed that “parental characteristics that employers value and are willing to pay for, such as skills, diligence, honesty, good health, and reliability, also improve children’s life chances, independent of their effect on parents’ income. Children of parents with these attributes do well even when their parents do not have much income”. These characteristics can be passed on either genetically or through nurture and can act as a ‘buffer’ to the damaging effects of poverty on childhood development.
This is supported by the work of Davis-Kean who found a significant correlation between parental warmth (how nurturing parents are towards their children – involving desirable traits such as positive feelings, praise, responding) and child achievement (although interestingly, only within African American families as opposed to European American families in this study).
Alongside the direct and moderated effects of poverty on childhood development it is also necessary to consider the mediated effects of family poverty on childhood development. As demonstrated by Engle & Black, in mediated models it is through disruptions in family function that the effects of poverty are felt and result in negative effects on childhood development.
Conger & Donnellan reviewed seven papers that have applied the Family Stress Model (FSM) across a widely varying demographics. The FSM overwhelmingly supports the view that poverty leads to family stress and this has a negative impact on parental mental health and increasing the likelihood of parents using harsh authoritarian parenting styles.
There is strong evidence for parental mental health impacting on child behaviour. The work of Weissman et al (2006) who found that the children of mothers who remained depressed were far more likely to develop their own symptoms and diagnosis than children of parents who went into remission.
This is similarly supported by Galler et al who found that postpartum maternal mental anxiety (PPMHA) was a significant predictor of lower exam scores at eleven to twelve years of age. Importantly, Galler et al found that background variables such as young maternal age at the time of her first pregnancy, more children in the home, less maternal education, and fewer home conveniences (all indicators of family poverty) were closely correlated with PPMHA, but crucially they found that PPMHA was still a significant predictor of lower exam scores even when all these background variables were controlled for.
Ram and Hou suggest that lone parents—usually mothers—must spend longer hours outside the home working to offset the economic losses they have suffered from the marital breakup and consequently do not spend enough time with their children. More importantly however, when considering mediated effects of poverty, they also found that depression and lower levels of psychological well-being occur more often amongst these parents and also negatively influences the quality of parenting and children’s behavioral problems, explaining why children in disrupted families experience severe emotional and behavioral problems. Interestingly however, Ram and Hou found that parental depression and low levels of psychological well-being have almost no effect on cognitive development; highlighting the many varying elements of childhood development.
Finally as noted by Engle and Black it is important to consider transactional models, where the effects of poverty interact between families and children. As previously noted, families can moderate and mediate the effects of poverty on children, similarly the children’s characteristics can have a similar effect.
Whilst typical family structure can positively affect family poverty and childhood development, evidence also suggests that the quality of family relations can also play a large part in childhood development. Children whose parents often argue (independent of divorce) score worse on measures of academic achievement, behavior problems, psychological well-being, and adult relationship quality; they are also more likely to form families early and outside of marriage (Musick & Meier).
One of these reasons is low levels of parental education.
Belsky (2013) has subsequently found a correlation between childhood obesity and intelligence in children as young as three; highlighting the relationship between poverty and child development.
Evans et al found that families experiencing poverty are more likely to face chaotic living conditions than are their middle- and upper-income counterparts. Chaos is characterised by “high levels of ambient stimulation (e.g., noise, crowding), minimal structure and routine,and considerable unpredictability and confusion in daily activities.”
Maslow’s hierarchy of needs suggests that the most basic needs: physiological (food, shelter etc) and safety (security of body, employment, family etc) love and belonging (friendship, family intimacy etc) and esteem (self esteem, confidence, respect of others etc) must be met before the individual will strongly desire (or focus motivation upon) the growth need of ‘self actualisation’.
Childhood development can be largely grouped into two categories: psychopathology e.g. internalising (emotional problems) and externalising (behavioural problems; and academic achievement).
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