How Poverty Can Follow Children Into Adulthood

Prolonged exposure to poverty in childhood can have long-term consequences in educational outcomes, physical health and brain development that follow a child into adulthood.

Prolonged exposure to poverty in childhood can have long-term consequences in educational outcomes, physical health and brain development that follow a child into adulthood. (Andrea Morales/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

November 22, 2017

At the height of the recession in 2012, nearly one in four American children were living in poverty.

Today, five years after America went through the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, children are still more likely to live in poverty than adults. In fact, while the national poverty rate sits at 14 percent, for children, it’s 18 percent.

The problem is particularly acute for children of color. While white children experience poverty at a rate of 11 percent, around 27 percent of Hispanic children, 31 percent of black children and 34 percent of Native American children in America today are growing up poor.

There are the obvious side-effects of growing up in poverty: deprivation, worry, and sometimes hunger and the risk of homelessness.

But just as troubling, experts say, is that growing up in a poor household is linked with long-term consequences in educational outcomes, physical health and brain development that can follow a child well into adulthood. Here are just a few ways how:

Children who grow up poor are more likely to be poor as adults

Studies show that children who grow up poor have a harder time escaping poverty as adults. For example, in one 2009 study by the National Center for Children in Poverty at Columbia University, researchers found that children who grew up poor were not only more likely to experience poverty as adults, but that the likelihood of being poor in adulthood went up with the number of years spent in poverty as a child.

According to the study, around five percent of adults who never experienced poverty as children were poor at ages 20 and 25. If they were poor anywhere from one to seven years as a kid, that number went up to approximately 13 percent. For those who spent eight to 14 years in poverty as children, 46 percent were poor at age 20, and 40 percent were poor at age 25.

The longer you grow up in poverty, the harder it is to graduate

One factor at play for why poor children go on to struggle as adults is education. Whether it’s because they didn’t have access to good schools, or their parents didn’t have the time or resources to help them, children who grow up in poverty often start at a disadvantage that can make it harder to achieve later in life.

In a 2017 report from the Urban Institute, researchers found that 62 percent of children who spent at least half their childhoods in poverty went on to attain a high school diploma by age 20. By comparison, that number was 90 percent for those who never experienced poverty.

The gaps only widen when it comes to college. A 2015 report from the Urban Institute found that 23 percent of children who spent at least half their childhood in poverty enrolled in postsecondary education by age 25, compared to 70 percent of children who were never poor. While roughly 37 percent of children who were never poor completed college by age 25, only 3 percent of children from persistently poor backgrounds were able to do the same. The study found that poverty played a role, even when race, gender, parent’s education, and other factors were taken into account.

Overall, the Urban Institute found that only 16 percent of kids who spent half their childhoods poor were either consistently working or in school and mostly out of poverty by their late 20s.

Growing up poor can carry long-term health implications

Poverty itself can be dangerous. Children growing up poor are more likely to be injured in accidents, and five times more likely to die due to accidents, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics.

“Poor families are more likely to reside in homes without functional smoke detectors and with open fires, unprotected windows and unsafe roofs or stairs,” an AAP report from 2016 noted. “Children in poor neighborhoods are at increased risk of cycling accidents, pedestrian injuries, falls, burns, poisonings and chemical burns.”

But the risks go deeper than that. Research shows that children who grow up in poverty are also more likely to develop chronic illnesses such as asthma or obesity — the latter can lead to further health problems, including diabetes and heart disease. Poor children are also more likely to be sedentary and exposed to tobacco, which in turn may increase the risk of heart and lung problems when they grow up.

Poverty can also harm a child’s brain development and lifelong mental health

“There are definite impacts [of poverty] on physical health,” said Benard Dreyer, former president of the American Academy of Pediatrics, in an interview with FRONTLINE. “But in addition, and perhaps more importantly, there’s an impact on brain development and the ability to succeed in life.”

Dreyer was referring to a growing body of research that shows exposure to “toxic” stress can actually impact a child’s brain development.

All children experience stress, and caring adults or support networks can help them cope and figure out how to respond. However, the constant stresses of living in an impoverished household — and in some cases, dealing with abuse or neglect — can create a toxic stress response.

Such levels of stress “impact children’s brain development in the first couple of years of life,” said Dreyer, and can result in permanent changes to brain structure and function. These changes can manifest as increased anxiety, impaired memory and mood control – making it harder to learn, solve problems, follow rules and control impulses. The release of stress hormones can also create a “wear and tear” effect on the child’s organs, including the brain.

How toxic stress effects a child may depend on their innate ability to cope with the stress, and on whether or not they have a support system, Dreyer said. “It doesn’t doom all children, but on the average, it causes a very significant problem in their ability to react to other stress, their ability to behave, to pay attention and to learn cognitively.”

Priyanka Boghani

Priyanka Boghani, Digital Editor, FRONTLINE



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