Psychological Sociological and Cultural Perspectives of Childhood and Poverty

This paper is about will explore the psychological, sociological, and cultural perspectives of childhood poverty in the United States. Why focus on children rather than the poor people as a whole? Children raised in poverty generally fare worse than those from higher-income families on measurements of health, emotional well-being, school achievement, and cognitive development (Morgan and Kickham, 2001, p. 479). Children are the future of our society, and minimizing poverty would provide a great benefit to our society. Another argument would be that children have basic inherent rights as human beings, but are not in a position to advocate those rights for themselves.

On the psychological aspect, there are several risk factors that affect a child’s emotional, behavioral, and cognitive development. For example, “low-income children are exposed to more violence, family disruption, and separation from their family” than children of higher incomes (Evans, 2004, p. 78). Low-income kids come into contact with violent peers in their neighborhood 40% more frequently than their middle-class counterparts (Evans). Studies show that they are also more likely to spend time in foster care and live in broken home (Evans).

Another risk factor that poor children are more exposed to is detached parents with harsher, more castigating disciplinary actions (Evans). One study showed that low-class parents were almost twice as likely as parents of higher socioeconomic standing to spank their children (Evans). Research has also shown that 26% of low-income parents are unresponsive to their infants and toddlers, compared to 15% of higher class parents (Evans). According to Evans (2004), “Fathers in jobs that are less complex and have lower decision latitude tend to encourage conformity and discourage self-directedness in their children (p. 79).

These are just a few of the risk factors that impact children’s development. It has been shown that these factors along with others such as less exposure to reading activities and more time watching television affects socioemotional and cognitive development, as well as behavioral conduct (Evans, 2004, p. 86). Children from low-income families are exposed to the risk factors more often and with greater intensity than middle-income children (Evans). “Thirty-five percent of the low income toddlers in the Liaw and Brooks-Gunn study had been exposed to six or more risk factors, as opposed to 5% of the middle-income toddlers” (Evans). This exposure to numerous risks hastens the undesirable development outcomes described earlier (Evans).

Probably the most obvious social structure that impacts childhood poverty is the education system. There is a wide schism between the schools attended by mostly lower-income students and those attended by higher income students. A major factor that perpetuates this rift is in the way public schools are funded. Public schools in the United States are funded predominantly by local property taxes. This has led to a great disparity between schools in poor neighborhoods, and those in more affluent neighborhoods. In 1991, “the 47 largest urban school districts in the United States averaged $875 less per pupil than in surrounding suburban districts. For a class of 25 children, this calculates to more than $20,000 annually per classroom” (Evans, 2004, p. 85). Not surprisingly, the under funded schools are in poor physical condition and tend to be overcrowded (Evans).

The quality of education in poorer schools is also lower than that of more prosperous schools. One study has shown that low-income schools had nearly half the amount of high school math teacher with mathematic degrees compared to higher income schools (Evans, 2004, p. 81). In addition, higher income student are more often encouraged to succeed in school and go on to college than low-income students are (Lott, 2002 pp. 104-105) In some cases, low-income students were systematically degraded by the faculty (Lott).

Even with the economic growth the United States has enjoyed over the last 50 years, level of poverty in our country has remained relatively constant (Iceland, 2003, pp. 1-3). One prevalent factor causing this phenomenon is the rise in number of female-headed households (Iceland). John Iceland’s (2003) research has shown that “families headed by women doubled from 9% to 18% between 1950 and 1998 (Iceland). What’s more, the number of African American children living only with their mothers, went from 19.9% in 1950 to 51.1% in 1998 (Iceland). It is hard enough for a single person to provide for his or her children, and the employment discrimination against women only compounds the problem.

Poverty is also perpetuated by the attitude toward the poor of our culture. The poor are seen by the non-poor as “uneducated, unmotivated, lazy, unpleasant, angry, stupid, dirty, immoral, criminal, alcoholic, abusive, and violent (Lott, 2002, pp 101-104). The predisposition to see poverty as a result of the poor person’s behavior is continued due to the fact that middle-class people are segregated from the poor (Lott). “The two groups shop in different stores, travel on different streets, eat in different restaurants, and their children [often] attend different schools” (Lott).

In order to engage the problem of childhood poverty, it is necessary to understand all the perspectives that impact the issue. We need to understand what the psychological effects of poverty are on children to see how to provide for certain basic human rights, as well as produce a better finished product (the adult) for the improvement of society. We also need to look at how our social institutions, such as the education system, perpetuate the problem through classism. Finally, we need to examine how our culture views poverty and the factors that promote poverty in order to begin to change.

Works Cited

Evans, Gary W. “The Environment of Childhood Poverty.” American Psychologist February/March 2004.

Iceland, John. “Why Poverty Remains High: The Role of Income Growth, Economic Inequality, and Changes in Family Structure, 1949-1999.”

Lott, Bernice. “Cognitive and Behavioral Distancing From the Poor.” American Psychologist February 2002.

Morgan, David R. and Kickham, Kenneth. “Children in Poverty: Do State Policies Matter?” Social Science Quarterly September 2001.