What are the effects of child poverty?

For the first time in at least 50 years, a majority of U.S. public school students come from low-income families, according to a new analysis of 2013 federal data, a statistic that has profound implications for the nation.

Psychological research has demonstrated that living in poverty has a wide range of negative effects on the physical and mental health and wellbeing of our nation’s children. Poverty impacts children within their various contexts at home, in school, and in their neighborhoods and communities. 

  • Poverty is linked with negative conditions such as substandard housing, homelessness, inadequate nutrition and food insecurity, inadequate child care, lack of access to health care, unsafe neighborhoods, and underresourced schools which adversely impact our nation’s children. 
  • Poorer children and teens are also at greater risk for several negative outcomes such as poor academic achievement, school dropout, abuse and neglect, behavioral and socioemotional problems, physical health problems, and developmental delays. 
  • These effects are compounded by the barriers children and their families encounter when trying to access physical and mental health care. 
  • Economists estimate that child poverty costs an estimated $500 billion a year to the U.S. economy; reduces productivity and economic output by 1.3 percent of GDP; raises crime and increases health expenditure (Holzer et al., 2008).

child poverty MD

food insecurity

Poverty and academic achievement 

  • Poverty has a particularly adverse effect on the academic outcomes of children, especially during early childhood. 
  • Chronic stress associated with living in poverty has been shown to adversely affect children’s concentration and memory which may impact their ability to learn. 
  • The National Center for Education Statistics reports that in 2008, the dropout rate of students living in low-income families was about four and one-half times greater than the rate of children from higher-income families (8.7 percent versus 2.0 percent). 
  • The academic achievement gap for poorer youth is particularly pronounced for low-income African American and Hispanic children compared with their more affluent White peers. 
  • Underresourced schools in poorer communities struggle to meet the learning needs of their students and aid them in fulfilling their potential. 
  • Inadequate education contributes to the cycle of poverty by making it more difficult for low-income children to lift themselves and future generations out of poverty.

Poverty and psychosocial outcomes 

  • Children living in poverty are at greater risk of behavioral and emotional problems. 
  • Some behavioral problems may include impulsiveness, difficulty getting along with peers, aggression, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and conduct disorder. 
  • Some emotional problems may include feelings of anxiety, depression, and low self-esteem. 
  • Poverty and economic hardship is particularly difficult for parents who may experience chronic stress, depression, marital distress and exhibit harsher parenting behaviors. These are all linked to poor social and emotional outcomes for children. 
  • Unsafe neighborhoods may expose low-income children to violence which can cause a number of psychosocial difficulties. Violence exposure can also predict future violent behavior in youth which places them at greater risk of injury and mortality and entry into the juvenile justice system.

Poverty and physical health

Children and teens living in poorer communities are at increased risk for a wide range of physical health problems: 

  • Low birth weight 
  • Poor nutrition which is manifested in the following ways: 
    1. Inadequate food which can lead to food insecurity/hunger 
    2. Lack of access to healthy foods and areas for play or sports which can lead to childhood overweight or obesity 
  • Chronic conditions such as asthma, anemia, and pneumonia 
  • Risky behaviors such as smoking or engaging in early sexual activity 
  • Exposure to environmental contaminants, e.g., lead paint and toxic waste dumps 
  • Exposure to violence in their communities which can lead to trauma, injury, disability, and mortality


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