Low-income children are disproportionately exposed to a wide variety of highly damaging physical and psychological risk factors in areas ranging from exposure to pollution to quality of parenting, wrote Prof. Gary Evans, design and environmental analysis and human development, in a new article in the current issue of American Psychologist.
Evans, who researched nearly 200 existing studies dealing with various specific aspects of poverty, found that nearly all the risk factors he studied could be linked to poverty. A risk factor was defined as an environmental condition that is likely to lead to harmful emotional or physical consequences for children later in life.
“I certainly expected to see that there would be relationships between poverty and risk factors, but I didn’t expect them to be so dramatic … You name a risk factor, and it’s probably related to income,” he said in an interview.
Evans said that he believed that focusing on specific aspects of poverty, as many of the studies did, rather than looking at the big picture failed to provide a sufficient understanding of the effects of poverty.
“We have a tendency to isolate [risk factors],” he said. “One of the things that is unique to poverty is that you’re exposed to a plethora of risk factors.” He termed this phenomenon a “confluence of risk.” “Being poor, in general, is not a good thing for children,” he said.
Evans said his article brought together physical, social and emotional risk factors rather than treating each area separately as most past studies have done.
“Families reside in both a social and a physical world,” he wrote. While the effect of each individual risk was not necessarily severe, when children were exposed to many different risks in combination, the harm could be serious and long term, Evans wrote.
“Maybe part of what’s going on is that a number of factors have intertwined,” he said. Evans pointed to divorce rates as an example of one of the psychological risk factors he studied. Children of divorced parents are likely to do worse in school and suffer adverse psychological effects. According to U.S. Census data which Evans cited in his article, the divorce rate is inversely related to family income.
Among families in the bottom fifth of income distribution, those making less than $21,800, the divorce rate is slightly more than 25 percent, whereas for families making more than $86,000 a year (the top fifth), the rate is just under six percent .
Other social risk factors which Evans examined in his article included under-qualified teachers in low-income schools and lower percentages of parents who are closely involved in their children’s education.
Among the physical risk factors Evans studied, he found that low-income children were much more likely to be exposed to industrial pollution, cigarette smoke and poor water quality than high-income children. Low-income children are also much more likely to live in violent neighborhoods, Evans found. According to a nationwide study which he cited, low-income teens reported the presence of weapons and physical assaults in their schools more than twice as often as teens with higher-income families.
Asked what he hoped his article would accomplish, Evans responded that “hopefully the article will provoke people to think a little differently about these issues.”
“I wanted to change the lens which people used [when they looked at poverty],” he said.
Evans said that he had observed “a very strong gradient between income levels and health in this country and many other countries.”
Nabil Iqbal ’06, whose family lives in Bangladesh, one of the poorest countries in the world, agreed with Evans’ conclusion that poverty has damaging effects on children. Poorer families in Bangladesh, he said, were often unwilling to send their children to school.
“The kids need to work in order to keep the family afloat … Parents don’t really want to send the children to school, especially girls,” Iqbal said.
Christopher Daeffler ’06, a member of the Cornell Republicans, said that while he sympathized with low-income children who were exposed to many risk factors, parents should be responsible for their children’s well-being.
“I feel bad that the parents aren’t working hard enough to get them out of the harmful environment,” Daeffler said. Evans was optimistic on the subject of public concern about the harmful effects of poverty.
“I think that most Americans on an individual, personal level, if they see or experience disadvantage themselves they feel bad about that,” he said.
He added, however, that concern about the problems of low-income families was very low at the societal level.
Archived article by Elijah Reichlin-Melnick