We already know that poverty is a math problem. So, what else is it?

Growing up poor can lead to lifelong emotional problems

Fourth in a six-part series

 To grow up in poverty can have a lasting impact on a child. What is less understood is how it affects the early relationships that shape a child’s social and emotional growth.  – Abby C. Winer and Ross A. Thompson

Chronic stress, which is experienced by many poor children, can be devastating since the hippocampus (part of the temporal lobe of the brain that regulates emotional responses) is critical in the formation of memory and spatial awareness. – Arthur Dobrin

In the previous installment of this series, I focused on the recent flood of research from scholars, scientists, journalists and others with regard to the psychological effects of poverty. And though not yet as broad as the psychological investigations, science is also exploring the emotional impact that living in poverty has on individuals and families.

One might inquire, as did I, as to the difference between “psychological” versus “emotional” effects. Through a bit of my own research, including looking into the works of Hungarian-Canadian endocrinologist Hans Seyle and American author and stress management expert James Porter, I believe that perhaps the best way to explain the distinction is that the psychological stress affects our thinking and decision-making process, while emotional stressors affect our mood and behavior.

Some suggest that there isn’t much of difference other than semantics, and others even contend that psychological and emotional stress, while technically different, are often so interrelated (coupled with their ability to induce physical stress) that the distinction is trivial. For example, wouldn’t someone who suffers from severe depression have both psychological and emotional (and quite likely physical) symptoms associated with their diagnosis?

I am not a social scientist, nor do I have much knowledge in this particular arena, so I do not intend to weigh in on this debate. What I am interested in are some of the new studies that cite the link between poverty and emotional health, particularly as it relates to children.

(MGN Online)

When studying the psychological effects of poverty on young children, researchers are primarily honing in on issues of cognitive development. By contrast, when focusing on the emotional development of poor children, scientists are interested in analyzing how kids express themselves and relate to the world around them.

Among the most comprehensive studies in this area comes from child psychiatrist William R. Beardslee, developmental psychologist J. Lawrence Aber, and clinical psychologist and education expert Hirokazu Yoshikawa.

Published in American Psychologist, their report titled “The Effects of Poverty on the Mental, Emotional, and Behavioral Health of Children and Youth: Implications for Prevention” begins by stating that “the effects of poverty are cumulative; consequences at one stage in a child’s development can hinder development at a later stage.”

They also note that poverty is a “family experience” and that in addition to economic hardship, additional circumstances including parental stress, relational conflict, limited neighborhood resources such as access to quality education and healthcare, and other environmental factors are critical to the mental, emotional, and behavioral health of developing children.

Rather poignantly, the authors also compare the aforementioned “mechanisms” that influence emotional health to what they call “moderators” which can either improve or exacerbate emotional issues in children. Among these is the “policy context,” which speaks to how the larger society directly responds to the needs of those experiencing poverty.

They don’t shy away at all from the issue of race, writing that “To the extent that marginalized ethnic, racial, or indigenous groups are more likely to be exposed to multiple forms of discrimination beyond the economic, children in such groups may encounter greater risk as a result of their family poverty status due to correlated higher levels of discrimination.”

Yet in between all of the science, which is critical to understanding the emotional development of our kids, the bottom line is that poor children are at much greater risk for emotional problems, which can follow them throughout their entire life. With that fact in mind, the authors identify a number of prevention strategies ranging from early childhood interventions, childhood allowances and tax credits, educational supports, income supplement programs and human capital interventions, in-kind support policies, and other programs that are proven to reduce poverty.

Why would we deprive our children of such resources? There is far too much at stake. We must not continue to fail our younger generations.


Clarence Hightower is the executive director of Community Action Partnership of Ramsey & Washington Counties. Dr. Hightower holds a Ph.D. in urban higher education from Jackson State University. He welcomes reader responses to 450 Syndicate Street North, St. Paul, MN 55104