Background Influence

Family poverty

Parent construct: Poverty

Poverty harms people in many ways. It affects children’s and adolescents’ development, puts stress on families that results in increased conflict, affects parent and child health, and undermines cooperation among neighbors in high-poverty neighborhoods. Over the past 30 years, evidence has mounted on the harm poverty causes.

Family poverty can harm child and youth development in three ways: through a stress and parenting pathway and an investments pathway. In a nutshell, it increases stress among parents and caregivers, reduces their ability to invest in learning opportunities, and affects their ability to be responsive and nurturing parents.

In the very first years of their babies' lives, parents living in poverty are less able to be patient, caring, and responsive to their infants. For example, a highly stressed mother may be less responsive to her child. She is not as able to respond from moment-to-moment to her baby's gestures, cries, and changes in emotion. This makes it harder for her baby to learn to talk, to calm down, and to get adults’ attention and care. Stressed parents have a particularly hard time if their baby is colicky or difficult to soothe. Infants and toddlers from poor families are also more likely to be hospitalized than children from families with fewer financial troubles.1

As a child develops, poverty puts stress on parents that makes it harder for them to be warm and caring with their school-age children. They aren’t as able to help their children develop the social skills they will need to succeed with peers and other adults.2 Poverty undermines the quality of the time parents can spend with their children. The result is that children don’t learn as much as they could.2 Once they reach kindergarten, they simply don’t know as much as children who come from better off families and are likely to fall behind in school3 and to get further behind as they progress through school.4

Throughout children’s development, poverty reduces parents’ ability to invest in their children’s learning. Poor parents can’t buy books, get good child care, or pay for after-school programs. Even their educational expectations for their children are reduced.5,6 In this way, the effects of family poverty can stretch outside the home, affecting the quality of learning opportunities in childcare and after school.

Even mild poverty, where families earn as much as twice the federally defined poverty level, affects young children’s learning and social skill.2 And, the longer children live in poverty, the bigger its harmful effect on their learning.7

Children and adolescents have more psychological problems such as depression and more behavioral problems such as delinquency and substance use, when their families are poor or experience job instability such as getting laid off.8,9 One of the primary reasons for this seems to be that parents in poor or economically distressed families are more likely to become depressed. When they do, they are less involved with their adolescents and treat them more harshly.10

Children growing up in poor families are not as healthy. Even when they have healthcare coverage, infants in low-income families have more health problems.11 However, increasing family income makes children healthier. One study showed that when family income increased, young children grew taller, had less stunted growth, gained more weight, but were less likely to become overweight.12

Related Interventions




  1. Guttman, Dick, & To. (2004).  

  2. Gershoff, E.T., Aber, J.L., Raver, C.C., & Lennon, M.C. (2007). Income is not enough: incorporating material hardship into models of income associations with parenting and child development. Child Development, 78(1), 70–95.  

  3. West, J., Denton, K., & Germino Hausken, E. (2000). America’s Kindergarteners (NCES 2000-070). Washington, DC: National Center for Education Statistics, U.S. Department of Education.  

  4. Duncan, G.J., Yeung, W. J., Brooks-Gunn, J., & Smith, J.R. (1998). How much does childhood poverty affect the life chances of children? American Sociological Review, 63(3), 406-423.  

  5. Bradley, R.H., Corwyn, R.F., Burchinal, M., Pipes McAdoo, H.P., & García Coll, C. (2001). The home environments of children in the United States Part II: relations with behavioral development through age thirteen. Child Development, 72(6), 868-1886  

  6. Yoshikawa, H., Weisner, T.S., & Lowe, E. (2006). (Eds.). Making it work: Low-wage employment, family life, and child development. New York: Russell Sage.  

  7. Najman, J.M. Hayatbakhsh, M.R., Heron, M.A., Bor, W., O'Callaghan, M.J., & Williams, G.M. (2009). Journal of Pediatrics, 154(2):284-9.  

  8. Costello, Compton, Keeler, & Angold, 2003  

  9. Lipman, Offord, & Boyle, 1994)  

  10. (Patterson, Conger, & Ge, 1995).  

  11. Séguin, L., Xu, Q., Potvin, L., Zunzunegui,M.-V., & Frohlich, K.L. (2003) Effects of low income on infant health. Canadian Medical Association Journal, 168(12), 1533–1538. PMCID: PMC156683, at  

  12. Fernald, L.C., Gertler P.J., & Neufeld, L.M. (2008). Role of cash in conditional cash transfer programmes for child health, growth, and development: an analysis of Mexico's Oportunidades. Lancet, 371(9615), 828-37.