Poor kids grow up to have a host of physical problems as adults, suggests previous studies. A Cornell University research conducted by following participants over a
15-year period, is the first to show that childhood poverty can cause
significant psychological damage in adulthood.
Impoverished children in the study had more antisocial conduct such
as aggression and bullying, and increased feeling of helplessness, than
kids from middle-income backgrounds, the study said. Poor kids also have
more chronic physiological stress and more deficits in short-term
‘Impoverished children are prone to antisocial conduct such as aggression and bullying, and increased feeling of helplessness, than kids from middle-income backgrounds.’
"What this means is, if you're born poor, you're on a trajectory to
have more of these kinds of psychological problems," said Gary Evans,
the author of the study and professor of environmental and developmental
psychology at Cornell.
"With poverty, you're exposed to lots of stress. Everybody has
stress, but low-income families, low-income children, have a lot more of
it," Evans said. "And the parents are also under a lot of stress. So
for kids, there is a cumulative risk exposure."
Evans, a child psychologist who specializes in the effects of stress on children, is the author of "Childhood poverty and adult psychological well-being," published last month in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science
The findings are important because kids who grow up in poverty are
likely to stay impoverished as adults. For example, there's a 40%
chance that a son's income will be the same as his father's income.
"People walk around with this idea in their head that if you work
hard, play by the rules, you can get ahead," Evans said. "And that's
just a myth. It's just not true."
In his study, Evans tracked 341 participants over a 15-year period, and tested them at ages nine, 13, 17 and 24.
Short-term spatial memory was tested by asking adult study
participants to repeat increasingly complex sequences of lights and
sounds by pressing four colored pads in the correct order - similar to
the "Simon" game. The adults who grew up in poverty had a diminished
ability to recall the sequences, compared to those who did not.
an important result because the ability to retain information in
short-term memory is fundamental to a host of basic cognitive skills,
including language and achievement," the study said.
Although the participants were assessed on this measure only when
they were adults, this test had the strongest association with childhood
poverty of the four measures.
Helplessness was assessed by asking the participants to solve an
impossible puzzle. Adults growing up in poverty gave up 8 percent more
quickly than those who weren't poor as kids. Previous research has shown
chronic exposure to uncontrollable stressors - such as family turmoil
and substandard housing - tends to induce helplessness.
Mental health was measured with a well validated, standardized index
of mental health with statements including "I argue a lot" and "I am
too impatient." Adults who grew up in poverty were more likely to agree
with those questions than adults from a middle-income background.
Chronic physiological stress was tested by measuring the
participants' blood pressure, stress hormones and body mass index.
Adults who grew up in poverty had a higher level of chronic physical
stress throughout childhood and into adulthood.
The study has two implications, Evans said.
First, early intervention to prevent these problems is more
efficient and more likely to work. "If you don't intervene early, it's
going to be really difficult and is going to cost a lot to intervene
later," he said.
Second, increasing poor families' incomes is the most efficient way
to reduce a child's exposure to poverty and, in turn, their risk of
developing psychological problems. Evans supports the creation of a
safety net, similar to Social Security's supplemental income for the
elderly and disabled. If a family is poor and has children, the federal
government should provide them with supplementary income sufficient to
participate in society, he said.
"It's not true you can't do anything about poverty. It's just
whether there's the political will, and are people willing to reframe
the problem, instead of blaming the person who is poor and - even more
preposterous - blaming their children," he said.
"This is a societal issue, and if we decide to reallocate resources
like we did with the elderly and Social Security, we could change the
kind of data this study is showing," he said.
"Could we get rid of poverty? Probably not," Evans said. "But I think we could change it dramatically."