How Does Poverty Affect Children?
In the United States, we often think of childhood as a time of innocence. It’s a time for learning, a time for play, a time for exploring the world and all the possibilities it offers you.
Children living in poverty don’t have that experience. Their world is not a kind, caring place. In their world, they struggle to survive.
Growing up in poverty injures a child’s emotional and physical well-being. When healthy child development is hampered, we see a host of long-term effects.
Children living in poverty are more likely to develop chronic illnesses, due to a lack of adequate nutrition and health care early in life. Anxiety, fear, and a lack of self-confidence can keep them from pursuing new opportunities. If they are abused or taken advantage of, they often don’t have the skills or resources to speak up for themselves, and can easily be ignored, which leads to more abuse.
Growing up in poverty also affects a child’s psychology. Children who might have otherwise grown up confident and secure instead believe the world wants them to fail. So they do. They stop trying to make life better. They give up. What’s the point, they ask—this is how life is supposed to be.
Children living in poverty grow up in a set of circumstances that teaches them hopelessness. They grow up believing that the world doesn’t get better, and their situation is never going to change. It didn’t change for their parents, it wasn’t any different for their grandparents, and their own children will be poor children.
What are the effects of poverty on child development?
The effects of poverty on children are wide-ranging and far-reaching. Consider the different types of poverty and how they can influence and impact a child's life.
Social poverty, including being undervalued and denied basic rights, influences the view children have of themselves, as well as their ability to connect with others. As children approach adolescence and then adulthood, they can become disconnected and isolated, and often become easy targets of abuse.
Educational poverty, including lack of access to education or vocational training, makes the future seem as bleak and dark as the present. Education helps children dream. It opens up a world beyond the one they see, and encourages them to try new things, experiment, and grow. It also provides marketable skills. Without these skills, children are unlikely to break out of the cycle of poverty.
Health poverty, including physical and emotional health, impacts a child’s quality of life. The first five years of life are critical to child development. Lack of proper nutrition, illness, and disease can cause permanent physical damage, or worse, death. Health problems also impact emotional health. It’s very hard to do anything when you don’t feel well.
Spiritual poverty, or the belief that you are worthless, is one of the most insidious lies of poverty. It destroys hope, and without hope, how do you find the strength to work, to play, to connect, to love, and to be loved? When children grow up believing the lie that they are worthless, it can take an excruciatingly long time to dismantle that lie and show them that they truly do matter.
Environmental poverty, including things like drought, famine, lack of nutrition and a lack of clean water, can cause or exacerbate health problems. This creates a vicious cycle, because illness makes it hard to work or learn, which in turn feeds the hopeless situation. Environmental factors like war and lack of housing expose children in poverty to additional risks. They become the easy targets of abuse and exploitation.
Economic poverty, or a lack of financial resources, underlies all the other characteristics of poverty just mentioned, and can fuel feelings of anger and desperation.
What Does Child Poverty Look Like?
Poverty affects what childhood looks like. To be a child in poverty means to live without. Without resources. Without choices. Without a voice. Without hope. Poverty is a life defined by what isn’t there.
Think about these common experiences that children in poverty face on a day-to-day basis.
Child poverty is…
…going to bed with a rumbling tummy, the same way you always do, and having no idea if you’ll get to eat anything tomorrow.
…hiding when you get hurt, because you don’t want your mom to worry about you or feel guilty that she can’t afford to take you to see the doctor.
…wondering if you should steal food to feed your baby sister. You don’t want to be a thief, but your sister’s been crying and shaking for four days because she’s so hungry, and you want to help.
…putting buckets around the house to catch the rain that leaks through the holes in the roof.
…walking everywhere you need to go and hoping the drivers and bicyclists don’t hit you. You have to walk in the road because there are no sidewalks.
…not having any protection when someone hits you, hurts you, or steals from you.
…being scared all the time because you’re powerless. If someone does something awful to you, what you are going to do about it? You have to take it. You have no choice. You have no voice.
…taking care of younger siblings, even when you’re 3, 4, or 5 years old.
…never thinking about what you want to be when you grow up. To children born in poverty, this question about the future is confusing. Why would anyone think about something so vague? You’re hungry, cold, and forgotten. That’s what you think about.
Poor children experience all these things and more.
Poverty deeply damages a young person’s physical, social, and emotional development. But it doesn’t have to.