Poverty & Child Development

Poverty creates long-term disadvantages for children. The consequences of poverty—emotional issues, delayed development and lower academic achievement, among others—put a child behind peers who do not struggle with poverty.

Poverty affects an increasing number of children. From 2007 to 2008, the number of kids living in poverty grew by over half a million in the United States, according to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.


The U.S. government defines and updates the poverty threshold each year. For example, a family of four earning less than $22,050 per year in 2010 is considered to live below the poverty line. Poverty levels change based upon the number of people in the family unit. The poverty line is often used for statistical reporting and to determine who is eligible for benefits that help decrease the effects of poverty.


Madagascar-shy and poor african girl with headkerchief

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An estimated 14 million children live in poverty in the United States.

According to the National Center for Children in Poverty, 19 percent of U.S. kids live in families that can’t meet their basic needs for food and shelter. Poverty guidelines are relatively low and even if a family of four earns $22,050 in 2010, they may have trouble paying for housing and feeding their children.


Poverty makes it more likely that children will do poorly in school.

Children that live in poor neighborhoods may have families that are not able to provide appropriate developmental stimulation that helps them overcome poverty. Their schools often lack resources and are not as academically challenging as schools in more prosperous neighborhoods.

The negative impact of being poor starts at birth and continues throughout a child’s educational development. In fact, children that live in poverty are more likely to have lower academic achievement or even drop out of school.


Madagascar-shy and poor african girl with headkerchief

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Poor children may also have challenges with social and emotional development. They are at risk for developing both behavior and emotional problems like impulsiveness, disobedience and difficulty getting along with peers, according to ChildTrends.org. Family poverty is also correlated with lower self-esteem. In general, poverty makes it harder for children to develop normal emotions to cope with a stressful environment.


Poor children are more likely to have health problems. They may have a low birth weight, which may cause early health issues.

They are less likely to have access to routine preventive and emergency medical care and may suffer from poor nutrition. These children miss more school, are admitted to the hospital more often and have higher death rates, according to a study in "Pediatrics: Official Journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics."

Without a foundation of good health, it is difficult for a child reach key developmental goals—everything from learning to talk to reading at grade level in school.


Many children live in poverty because their parents do not have jobs. By increasing the number of welfare-to-work programs, more parents will have the opportunity to earn a living wage. Programs that teach low-income families about food and health assistance also help address the effects of poverty as well.

Many poor children live with single mothers.

Discouraging teen births and encouraging two-parent families helps to lessen the likelihood that kids will live in poverty. Enforcing existing child support laws and encouraging fathers to be involved also contributes to more prosperous families.