Effects on Children

For children of all ages, poverty has some devastating effects.  Poor children are two times more likely than nonpoor children to have stunted growth, iron deficiency, and severe asthma. A government study in 1996 showed that poverty placed children at greater risk of dying before their first birthdays than did a mother's smoking during pregnancy. Another study conducted by the U.S. Department of Education found that for every year a child spends in poverty, there is the chance that the child will fall behind grade level by age 18. In the 1994 book, Wasting America's Future, the Children's Defense Fund estimates that every year of child poverty at current levels will cost the nation at least $36 billion in lost future productivity alone, because poor children will be less educated and less effective workers.

For parents struggling to raise a child, poverty adds extensive stress to the family. McLoyd (1990) states that economic hardship experienced by lower-class families is associated with anxiety, depression, and irritability. With those qualities may come a tendency on the part of parents to be punitive, inconsistent, authoritarian, and generally nonsupportive of their children. The strain of poverty may also promote the use of disciplinary approaches that take less time and effort than approaches such as reasoning and negotiating. Spanking and forms of physical punishment are quick; they may relieve frustration and they don't demand much thinking in the midst of multiple worries and stress.

Effects on Parents

Families in poverty, when parents are working, are influenced by the kind of occupations in which the parents work. Kohn (1977) has found that lower-class parents look at their children's behavior with a focus on its immediate consequences and its external characteristics, whereas middle-class parents explore their children's motives and the attitudes expressed by their behavior. Kohn interpreted these differences as connected to the characteristics associated with the level of occupation. Bronfenbrenner and Crouter (1982) concur that parents' workplaces affect their perceptions of life and the way they interact with family members. Consequently, their parenting styles reflect aspects of their work life. Again, as you watch children play, you will see indications of these influences in their conversations, roleplaying, interactions, vocabulary, and perspectives.

It is possible that parents from higher socioeconomic statuses—parents with enough money to be comfortable while raising their families—are more likely to show more warmth and affection, talk to their children more, be more democratic, be receptive to their children's opinions, and stress creativity, independence, curiosity, ambition, and self-control. Parents who are experiencing "financial strain, depression and anxiety, marital discord and disrupted parenting due to their circumstances may be harsher with, less supportive of, and more detached from their children" (Ryan, Fauth, & Brooks-Gunn, 2006, p. 329). When you put yourself in the shoes of parents from lower socioeconomic statuses—parents without enough money to be comfortable while raising their families, with constant worries about how to feed, clothe, and shelter their children—you can begin to understand why their behavior might differ significantly from the behavior of parents from higher socioeconomic statuses.

Poverty and Housing

The information on poverty previously described looks even more bleak when reviewed in the context of housing costs. Rent increases have exceeded inflation and much low-income housing has been lost to decay, gentrification, and urban development. The National Low-Income Housing Coalition reported in 2004 that a full-time minimum wage income continues to be inadequate to afford even the most modest two-bedroom home at fair market rent, and that it would take nearly three times the federal minimum wage to afford such rent. Even more discouraging are the data showing that "in only four counties in the U.S. can a full-time worker earning minimum wage afford a typical one-bedroom apartment".

It is also reported that women, children, and the elderly are overrepresented among those with housing problems. Children are present in 93% of overcrowded households and 56 percent of households with multiple problems such as overcrowding, malfunctioning heating or plumbing systems, and health hazards (Joint Center for Housing Studies at Harvard University, 2003). Those health-related hazards include lead poisoning, asthma, asbestos, radon, and mold. Added to these problems is a huge lack of affordable housing, the leading cause of homelessness.