The challenges of growing up in poverty

Psychologist Gary Evans on the influence of childhood poverty on biology, health, and development
MAJ Aaron Haney, flickr.com, CC BY 2.0
MAJ Aaron Haney, flickr.com, CC BY 2.0

Meeri Kim: Much of your work focuses on how children’s environment affects their health and well-being — in particular, the ways in which childhood poverty can lead to negative developmental outcomes. What are the components of poverty that tend to hit kids the hardest?

Gary Evans: Throughout my work, I’ve tried to make the point that one of the reasons why poverty is harmful for kids is the chronic stress they experience as a result. One of the things that is unique and unfortunately quite powerful about childhood poverty is this accumulation of stressors, both physical and psychosocial. Physical stressors include housing issues, noise, crowding, and pollution. But the kids also experience psychosocial stressors like crime, family turmoil, and residential instability.

“Parts of the brain may change in children who grow up in poverty, leading to less efficient control and regulation of some cognitive and emotional processes than their wealthier peers.”

MK: How does constant exposure to such stressors impact the developing brain?

GE: The physiological response systems that are designed to handle relatively infrequent environmental stressors become overwhelmed for disadvantaged children. There is good evidence that parts of the brain linked to executive control — involved in coordinating things and keeping everything organized — are sensitive to chronic stress. Structurally as well as functionally, these regions may change in children who grow up in poverty, leading to less efficient control and regulation of some cognitive and emotional processes than their wealthier peers.

At the same time, other parts of the brain tied to automated, quick responses to stress and emergencies like the amygdala become over-developed and over-activated. So you have this bad mix of heightened emotional responses coupled with less regulation and control.

MK: Recently, you published a study on the link between childhood poverty and adult psychological well-being. What did you find?

GE: I looked at the psychological well-being of 24-year-olds in relation to their family income when they were 9 years old, finding relationships with a number of mental health and cognitive outcomes. Childhood poverty is linked to deficits in adult memory, greater psychological/physiological distress, and higher levels of aggression.

Another research interest is how motivation and helplessness differ for those who grew up in an impoverished environment. We have given both children and adults age-appropriate tasks to persist on, and we see consistently less persistence from the disadvantaged. When challenged, they’re much more likely to give up. To me, that unfortunately fits our model — if you grow up with a lot of stressors, your environment sets you up for feeling like you don’t have a sense of mastery or self-efficacy. This is a dynamic, particularly for children, that we need to look more at.

“If you grow up with a lot of stressors, your environment sets you up for feeling like you don’t have a sense of mastery or self-efficacy.”

MK: Given your findings on poverty, what kinds of policy changes could help enhance these children’s lives? Universal basic income?

GE: Various experiments have shown that when you increase the income of families in poverty, you may get better health outcomes, better parenting, and reductions in various negative outcomes. I believe any policy approach has to increase income in a way that is predictable and reliable, coupled with more available and affordable services for these families.

“Because poverty includes a convergence of multiple risk factors and stressors, it really means multiple interventions are necessary.”

Because poverty includes a convergence of multiple risk factors and stressors, it really means multiple interventions are necessary. You can’t just provide housing or job training. You really have to look across the board. A classic example is taking people off of welfare and giving them a low-income job, which is usually right around the minimum wage. However, if there is little or no childcare, the program winds up not being nearly as effective as it ought to be. Good-quality free or heavily subsidized childcare coupled with employment or job training may work better.

Gary Evans, Elizabeth Lee Vincent Professor at Cornell University’s College of Human Ecology, is an environmental and developmental psychologist interested in how the physical environment affects human health and well being among children. His specific areas of expertise include children’s environments, the environment of childhood poverty, children’s cumulative risk and children, environmental stressors, and the development of children’s environmental attitudes and behaviors.