Poverty and Children's Development

One of the most consistent associations in developmental science is between economic hardship and compromised child development. The influence of family income, and specifically of poverty, has been of special interest in light of the numerous policies that address poverty in the United States and the intractability of—indeed, the increase in—the child poverty rate.3 In 1997, some 5.2 million young children (22 percent of all young children) in the United States were poor, and 42 percent lived at or below 185 percent of the poverty line.4 The strength and consistency of associations between poverty and critical aspects of child development are striking (Brooks-Gunn and Duncan, 1997) (Table 10-1).

Developmental research on children in poverty has grown exponentially in recent years (see Brooks-Gunn and Duncan, 1997; Chase-Lansdale and Brooks-Gunn, 1995; Huston, 1991; Huston et al., 1994; McLoyd, 1998). This research has yielded suggestive evidence that increasing the incomes of low-income parents with young children will improve the odds of successful early development. What remains to be understood is the nature of the impact and optimal strategies for increasing the incomes of poor parents that best promote their children's development. Even though most children living in poverty grow up to be productive adults, some do not and, without intervention, individual differences among children at school entry that are linked to poverty often persist over time (Stipek, in press). When this evidence is combined with the basic facts about early


This “official” poverty count is based on a Census Bureau comparison of total family income with a poverty threshold that varies by family size. Expressed in 1997 dollars, the respective poverty thresholds for families with three and four persons were roughly $13,000 and $16,500. Young children living in families with total cash incomes below these thresholds were counted as poor.


Children in families with incomes between 100 and 185 percent of the federal poverty line are designated near poor because they are served by a number of government assistance programs that use 185 percent of the poverty line as the upper limit to determine eligibility.

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