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Adv Child Dev Behav. 2006;34:91-129.

Income poverty, poverty co-factors, and the adjustment of children in elementary school.

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  • 1Department of Psychology, University of Delaware, Newark, DE 19716, USA.


Since 1990, there have been great advances in how developmental researchers construct poverty. These advances are important because they may help inform social policy at many levels and help frame how American culture constructs poverty for children, both symbolically and in the opportunities children and families get to escape from poverty. Historically, developmental perspectives have embodied social address and main effects models, snapshot views of poverty effects at single points in time, and a rather narrow focus on income as the symbolic marker of the ecology of disadvantage. More recent views, in contrast, emphasize the diverse circumstances of disadvantaged families and diverse outcomes of disadvantaged children, the multiple sources of risk and the multiple determinants of poor outcomes for these children, dynamic aspects of that ecology, and change as well as continuity in outcome trajectories. The advances also consist of more powerful frames for understanding the ecology of disadvantage and the risk it poses for child outcomes. Most developmental researchers still tend to frame causal variables ultimately in terms of the dichotomy between social causation and social selection views, with a primary emphasis on the former. In part, this framing has reflected limitations of sample size and design, because the theoretical and empirical power of reciprocal selection models is clear (Kim et al., 2003). The conceptual advances that prompt such models include widespread acknowledgement of third variable problems in interpreting effects, of the clear need for multivariate approaches, and the need to pursue mechanisms and moderators of the relations between causal candidates and child outcomes. In the context of these advances, one of the core goals of our research program has been to construct robust representations of environmental adversity for disadvantaged families. Most of our research focuses on contextual co-factors at a family level (e.g., maternal relationship instability), which either have not been described by many researchers or have been described in a way that does not fit the ecology of disadvantage (e.g., marital status). We found that income poverty, key contextual co-factors, and endogenous child attributes tend to show independent and selective associations with child academic competence and externalizing behavior, and that co-factor effects tend to be direct rather than mediated by harsh parenting, tend to have effects that are episodic and concurrent, and are easily- and well-represented by multiple risk indexes that bear powerful relations to child problem behaviors. A second core goal has been to better understand the developmental construction of poor outcomes for disadvantaged children, which requires consideration of dynamic aspects of the ecology and the potential importance of the timing of risk experiences. We found that family instability and change in environmental circumstances predict increases in problem behaviors, and that dose of adversity seems to matter for some variables if it is recent, and not for other variables. Through person-centered research, we also are beginning to understand some factors that seem to underlie the convergence of adjustment problems over grade in school. Many of our co-factor findings and many of our developmental findings seem both complex and double-edged. One edge is that they encourage a certain pessimism in showing how environmental adversity progressively constructs poor outcomes for disadvantaged children in school. Overall, for instance, we saw more problems and more multi-dimensional problems in fifth grade than in first grade, and the impact of environmental change was mostly negative. The other edge, however, is more positive in reflecting the possibility of discontinuity in child adjustment problems associated with positive changes in family circumstances. Findings for minimal persistence and for the strength of recent and concurrent effects argue that the possibility of self-righting and emergent competence in school is robust through the fifth grade even for the most problematic disadvantaged children.

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