Poverty: Found Where We Least Expect It


Sarina Starling, Staff Writer

  Poverty is a growing epidemic throughout the world, and it isn’t exclusive to primarily developing countries. America’s poverty rate is surprisingly high, especially when compared to other developed countries in the world. The United Nations describes America as a nation near the bottom of the developed world in safety net support and economic mobility, with the highest infant mortality rate, the world’s highest incarceration rate, and the highest obesity levels.

More than 100 million Americans either live near the brink of poverty or churn in and out of it, and nearly 70 percent of these Americans are women and children. In the United States alone, more than one in eight women, nearly 16.3 million, lived in poverty in 2016. When these statistics are broken down by ethnicity, they show that poverty rates are particularly high for African-American women (21.4 percent), Latinas (18.7 percent) and Native women (22.8 percent).

However, poverty is not strictly defined within the bounds of money. Part of the definition of poverty is “the state of being inferior in quality” which can apply to the psychological and physical problems that many living in poverty face. Many instances of poverty begin during childhood, and research conducted by an article titled The Consequences of Poverty states that children growing up in poverty experience multiple stressful events: neighborhood crime and drug use: divorce, parental conflict, and other family problems, including abuse and neglect by their parents; parental financial problems and unemployment; physical and mental health problems of one or more family members; and so forth.

Poor children’s high levels of stress due to these experiences produce unusually high levels of stress hormones such as cortisol which increases blood pressure. Because these high levels impair their neural development, their memory and language development skills suffer and this result in turn affects their behavior and learning potential. For other physiological reasons, high levels of stress also affect the immune system, so that poor children are more likely to develop various illnesses during childhood and other health problems when they grow older. This can cause other biological changes that make poor children more likely to end up being obese. An overabundance of stress on children and adolescents can also cause drug and alcohol problems.

In addition, the poor are more likely to be afflicted by infant mortality, earlier adulthood mortality, and mental illness. On top of that, they are also more likely to receive inadequate medical care. Poor children are more likely to suffer from an unhealthy diet and can experience behavioral, cognitive, and health problems. These issues affect their ability to do well in school and land stable employment as adults, helping to ensure that poverty will persist across generations.

Perhaps due to these stressful events and the environment that they are directly influenced by, it is a given that poor children are more likely to be poor when they become adults, are at greater risk for antisocial behavior when young and unemployment in adulthood as well as the possibility of participation in criminal activities.

Educational opportunities have a large effect on children, and can directly influence their lives as adults. Research has found that poor children usually go to deteriorating schools with limited facilities where they receive insufficient schooling. They are much less likely than wealthier children to graduate from high school or go to college. Yet another statistic from The Consequences of Poverty supports the claim that schooling is massively influential: adults who were poor in early childhood had completed two fewer years of schooling on average and had incomes that were less than half of those earned by wealthier children. They received $826 more annually in food stamps on average and were almost three times more likely to report being in poor health. Poverty-stricken adults were twice as likely to have been arrested (males only); and were five times as likely to have borne a child (females only). Geography can also play a role in education, as many poor families spend more than half their income on rent, and they tend to live in poor neighborhoods that lack job opportunities, good schools, and other features of modern life that affluent people take for granted.

According to The Consequences of Poverty, in order to reduce poverty’s harmful physiological effects on children, John P. Shonkoff, a public health scholar, advocates efforts to promote strong, stable relationships among all members of poor families; to improve the quality of the home and neighborhood physical environments in which poor children grow; and to improve the nutrition of poor children. Duncan and Magnuson, also involved in this study, call for more generous income transfers to poor families with young children and note that many European democracies provide many kinds of support to such families. The recent scientific evidence on early childhood poverty underscores the importance of doing everything possible to reduce the harmful effects of poverty during the first few years of life.