Why have we forsaken our children; the psychological and social ramifications of childhood poverty in the United States

Socioeconomic status adversely and profoundly affects many American citizens.  It has been shown that children that come from impoverished backgrounds are more likely to have lesser education, lesser quality of health care, lesser social support, and the list goes on and on; and these factors can be linked to a poor mental health outcome later in life (Evans & Cassells, 2013). Those that live in low income areas are more likely to be exposed to violence, lower quality of housing and schools, and live in families that are less stable and lack social support (Evans, 2004). Socioeconomic status has been directly correlated to quality of life; it affects individual efficacy as well as physical and psychological health and development (APA, 2015).

According to the National Center for Children in Poverty, more than 16 million children (22% of all children) in the United States have families where their incomes fall below the federal poverty level, which is $23,550 yearly for a family of four.  This abject poverty can interfere with learning and can add to problems socially, emotionally, and behaviorally (NCCP, 2015). The United States is near the bottom of the list of affluent countries when it comes to gauging childhood poverty (Ingraham, 2014). It is preposterous that such a large conglomeration of our society is living in an environment that is conducive to poor future mental health outcomes, and the big question is why?

In Kenneth Keniston’s “Do Americans Really like Children?” he alludes to the idea that the United States is trailing other countries in maintaining the needs for our children.  The reason for this lack of progression, according to Keniston, is the dynamism of our economic structure. He explores three problems in which he thinks halts the progression of the U.S. at the expense our children; they are the depopulation of the family, the intellectualization of the child, and the perpetuation of exclusion (1975).  He states that in order to progress beyond these problems that we need to stop blaming the individual and start blaming the economic system that strongly affects our social presence (1975).

James Garbarino seems to agree with Keniston in that we are discounting our children based on the economic context in the United States (1985).  Garbarino believes that we have become “monetarized” in that we feel that we must put a dollar amount on everything; because of this parents feel they need more money to purchase food, health care costs, recreation, and child care (1985). This shows in that in most families both parents work in order to meet their budgets, which then leaves little time for rearing their children (Garbarino, 1985). This cost of raising children is connected to what he calls the “opportunity cost”, which refers to the costs involved in being a member of the workforce, and how much of that income is lost when one chooses to become a parent (Garbarino, 1985). This higher cost of raising children, and the idea of children being a luxury is causing what Garbarino calls “hurrying”.  In more well-off families this equates to the children being hurried into becoming part of the elite, while children in families that have economic hardship are hurried so that the parents can find a way to make money to make ends meet. He questions what the quality life of children will be if the economic system affects our social presence at a higher level (Garbarino, 1985).

It is interesting how much of what is said in Keniston’s and Garbarino’s writing from thirty to forty years ago is still applicable in today’s society.  We still see a considerable socioeconomic disparity between those at the top of the economic ladder and those at the bottom (Boushey & Hersh, 2012). The only difference is that those in the middle class are beginning to fall even further behind their more well-off counterparts (Boushey & Hersh, 2012).  Since 2007, those in the middle class have seen a shift in the rise in family income (Boushey & Hersh, 2012).  In between 1979 and 2007, the average family income advanced at a rate of 35%, while those with incomes at the 99th percentile saw a shift of 278% (Boushey & Hersh).  The only reason that those in the middle class have managed to stay above water economically is by working longer hours, expanding their work load (mainly at the expense of mothers and wives), and by going further in debt in order to try to keep up with inflation (Boushey & hersh, 2012).  This begs the question that if the middle class is falling further behind by having to work longer hours, having both parents work more than before, and taking on more debt to keep up with inflation, where does this leave children living at or below the poverty level?  Children in poverty are more likely to feel the adverse effects to their physical, socioemotional and cognitive well-being (Evans, 2004). Even with that being said, there is evidence that there has been an increase in the numbers of discord in American children against all socioeconomic levels, and the answer can be relayed back to our economic system as a whole (Evans, 2004). It is hard to believe that such a developed nation as the United States has such an astronomical amount of children that are suffering, and it makes one wonder if we really do appreciate our children.



National Center for Children in Poverty, (2015). Child poverty. Retrieved from: http://www.nccp.org/topics/childpoverty.html

Keniston, K. (1975). Do Americans really like children? Childhood Education; 52. 1.

Garbarino, J. (1985). Can American families afford the luxury of childhood? Child Welfare, 65 (2).

Boushey H. & Hersh, A. (2012). Middle class series: the American middle class, income inequality, and the strength of our economy. Retrieved from: https://www.americanprogress.org/issues/economy/report/2012/05/17/11/11628/the-american-middle-class-income-inequality-and the-strength-of-our-economy/

Evans, G.W. (2004). The environment of childhood poverty. American Psychologist, 59 (2), 77-92.

Evans, G.W., & Cassells, R.C. (2013). Childhood poverty, cumulative risk exposure, and mental health in emerging adults. Clinical Psychological Science. doi: 10.1177/2167702613501496

American Psychological Association. (2015). Children, youth, families and socioeconomic status. Retrieved from: http://www.apa.org/pi/ses/resources/publicatioms/factsheet-cyf.aspy

Ingraham, C. (2014). Child poverty in the U.S. is among the worst in the developed world. The Washington Post. Retrieved from: http://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonkblog/wp/2014/10/29/child-poverty-in-the-u-s-is-among-the-worst-in-the-developed-world/

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