Childhood Poverty May Lead to Poor Adult Psychological Health


Another connection linking our paths as children to the ones we embark on as adults has been uncovered: A study says people who experience poverty in childhood are more apt to have psychological challenges as adults.

Researchers at Cornell University say that impoverished children experienced more antisocial behavior including aggression, bullying and increased feelings of helplessness than middle-income children. Poorer children also have more chronic physiological stress and increased deficits in short-term spatial memory.

Gary Evans, author of the study and professor of Environmental and Developmental Psychology at Cornell, says, “What this means is, if you’re born poor, you’re on a trajectory to have more of these kinds of psychological problems.”

Influence of Stress on Mental Health

It was previously understood that there is a link between poorer children and the physical problems they may experience as adults. But what wasn’t known was the monumental and long-term effects that stress had on individuals which followed them from childhood through adulthood.

“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.”

How Participants Were Assessed

Over a 15-year period, 341 participants were tracked and tested at ages 9, 13, 17 and 24. Their short-term spatial memory was examined by having adult study participants repeat increasingly complex sequences of lights and sounds by pressing four colored pads in the correct order — much like the “Simon” game. Study participants were only tested as adults in this assessment, but this trial had the strongest association with childhood poverty.

The adults who grew up in impoverished environments experienced a limited ability to remember the sequences in comparison to those who grew up in middle-class environments.

“This is an important result,” the study said, “because the ability to retain information in short-term memory is fundamental to a host of basic cognitive skills, including language and achievement.”

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The testing of helplessness was determined by asking contributors to solve a complicated puzzle. Adults who grew up in a poverty environment were 8 percent more likely to give up quickly than those who didn’t have a poor upbringing. Previous research supports that chronic exposure to stressors beyond one’s control — like family turmoil and low-income housing — can also lead to feelings of helplessness.

Mental health was measured with specific standardized statements which included, “I argue a lot” and “I am too impatient.” These were the sentiments that adults who grew up in poverty backgrounds agreed with more strongly than individuals with middle-class upbringings.

The blood pressure, stress hormone and body mass index of study participants were test indicators to analyze physiological stress. Overall, poverty-stricken adults had higher levels of chronic physical stress from childhood through adulthood.

Changing the Negative Trajectory

Early intervention is key to helping prevent these problems in the first place. “If you don’t intervene early,” Evans said, “it’s going to be really difficult and is going to cost a lot to intervene later.”

Ultimately, increasing the incomes of poorer families is the most beneficial way to reduce a child’s poverty exposure and the risk of developing psychological problems. Evans suggests that the federal government create a financial safety net — like social security — that can supplement a poorer family’s income, allowing them to positively participate in society.

“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,” Evans said. “Could we get rid of poverty? Probably not. But I think we could change it dramatically.”

Ronke Idowu Reeves

Ronke Idowu Reeves is a writer and journalist who hails from Brooklyn, NY. Her news and entertainment stories have appeared on WABC-TV-New York, Fox News Channel, VH1, plus in Sundance Film Festival’s Sundance Daily Insider and People Magazine.