Legs wearing a pair of worn and torn shoes
Developmental, Social and behavioural

Poverty shapes how children think about themselves

A review from the University of Massachusetts has highlighted a different way that poverty can leave a lasting impression on children.

20 May 2015

By Alex Fradera

The Culture of Poverty”, published in 1966 (pdf), was hugely influential, persuading many policy makers that children from low-income families are destined for lives of “criminality, joblessness, and poverty” because they exist in enclaves characterised by dysfunctional beliefs and practices. Thankfully, this fatalistic view has since been largely refuted and attention has turned to ways to help poor children, including giving them access to books, good teachers and stable environments.

Now a review from the University of Massachusetts has highlighted a different way that poverty can leave a lasting impression on children: by altering their psychological states in ways that shape their future. This sounds like a bleak picture, but the review urges the situation is one we can combat.

Authors Amy Heberle and Alice Carter point out that adults belonging to a disadvantaged group are vulnerable to a pair of effects: higher levels of stress when their low status is made clear to them, termed status anxiety; and underperformance on a task when reminded that their social group is stereotypically poor at the task, termed stereotype threat. If these phenomena apply to young children, as Heberle and Carter propose, then even if they have a stable, stress-free family life, poor kids are likely to generate their own stress and underperform simply through awareness of their own in-poverty status.

For this to be the case, young children would need to possess social categories and understand stereotypical beliefs. It appears they do. The review explains how, from the age of five, children in Western countries have a handle on the category of “poor people”, and are able to describe it coherently. Interestingly, middle income children are likely to use “dirty”, “mean”, and other stereotypes in their descriptions, whereas poorer children are more likely to describe how poor people feel, suggesting greater empathy and an awareness that they lie within or close to that group.

In terms of stereotypical beliefs, children from first grade (aged six to seven) onwards endorse the belief that poor kids do worse in school. Moreover, there is evidence from a single study that children believe that although poorer children have a similarly broad range of ambitions to that of other children, less than a quarter of these dreams would be achieved, whereas non-poor children should achieve the majority of theirs.

For poor children to be burdened by stereotype threat, they would also need to be conscious that others might assign them to a stereotypical category. Here the evidence is thinner, but we know that poor kids who say they would prefer poor friends give reasons including “they wouldn’t judge you on how you look, you talk, and the way you were.”

Heberle and Carter emphasise that more research is needed to establish exactly when children begin to experience status anxiety and stereotype threat. They urge far more work on the under-5s (children begin drawing social categories and stereotypes by the age of two), which would require the use of non-verbal techniques (e.g. preferential looking) in place of questions and conversation. They predict such research will show that social class and stereotypes fall into place by age three, very early in a child’s sense-making of the world.

If these mechanisms do have an impact, it would explain why researchers have struggled to establish a causal link between inequality and health outcomes at a personal level, even though we know more equal nations have better health. At least in developed nations, it may be that the harm comes not so much from lack of absolute material wealth but from the psychological mechanisms triggered by comparative poverty. These mechanisms might even be a contributing factor in the recent finding that 12-13 year olds from low-income families have thinner cortices in brain regions associated with academic performance.

If Heberle and Carter are right, then growing up poor does throw up psychological obstacles to healthy functioning. But these are issues that teachers and families can challenge by discussing and countering negative beliefs about poverty with their children, and that policymakers can tackle too. Even innocuous, discretionary costs, such as a museum trip fee, can be too much for a stretched family budget, creating separation between poorer children and their peers. Recognising this, societies can try harder to lessen these burdens.

Further reading

Heberle, A., & Carter, A. (2015). Cognitive Aspects of Young Children’s Experience of Economic Disadvantage. Psychological Bulletin DOI: 10.1037/bul0000010