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The Impacts of Poverty In Infancy

The effects of poverty can emerge within the first year of life.

Key points

  • Poverty has a wide range of negative impacts on children’s physical and mental health and well-being.
  • Infants living in poverty may show challenges in attention as early as 6 months of life.
  • Identifying early interventions in infancy may buffer the effects of poverty in years to come.

Income inequality has significantly increased in the United States since the 1980s (Pew Research Center, 2020). The wealth gap between America’s richest and poorer families more than doubled between 1989 to 2016. While these socioeconomic inequities affect everyone below the poverty line, young children, particularly infants, can be especially vulnerable to the widespread effects.

Research clearly demonstrates that living in poverty has a wide range of negative impacts on children’s physical and mental health and well-being (APA, 2009). Children who grow up in impoverished homes are at a greater risk for abuse and neglect, behavioral and socioemotional problems, physical health problems, and developmental delays. Poverty has a particularly adverse effect on the academic outcomes of children, especially during the early school years. This often leads to frequent dropouts and inadequate education, contributing to generational cycles by making it difficult for young adults to obtain and maintain stable employment and lift themselves and future generations out of poverty.

Poverty and academic success

Family socioeconomic status has been associated with child performance on reading, math, and science assessments in elementary school children (Goodman et al., 2012). Numerous studies indicate that low SES children perform worse overall than their higher SES peers in areas such as cognition, memory, language, attention, and emotional regulation. Most studies highlight these key differences in school-aged children, but less is known about how early these distinctions may appear in infancy. Studying joint attention in infants from low SES homes can help shed light on how early these distinctions may appear and lead to novel interventions that could be tailored accordingly.

The role of joint attention

Joint attention represents a key milestone in infancy (Tomasello & Carpenter, 2007). It occurs when a baby and caregiver look at the same object or event at the same time, with a shared awareness that they are doing so. Joint attention abilities pave the way for healthy learning, cognition, and socio-emotional functioning later in life. Attention is also a strong predictor of future academic success. Problems with attention in infancy can lead to academic challenges and specific deficits in school-age years and beyond.

Poverty and joint attention

Prior studies demonstrate that children living in poverty have more severe problems with attention compared to their higher SES peers, but less is known about when these distinctions actually begin. Most studies address these key differences in children ages 3 and above, with few targeting changes in attention in early infancy. In one study addressing this gap, researchers found that low SES infants performed worse at 6 months compared to their higher SES peers in every measure of attention and inattention (Clearfield & Jedd, 2012). Low SES infants also showed decreased attention to people and faces, which could contribute to problems with emotional regulation and an inability to empathize well with others.

Although the precise mechanisms responsible for these differences are still unclear, Reilly et al. (2021) highlighted the resource-based differences that are present in low SES versus higher SES homes, which can impact an infant’s ability to develop joint-attention abilities. For example, lower-resourced homes tend to have fewer toys, books, and stimulating learning environments for infants to engage in, which can influence the development of joint attention. In addition, household chaos and heightened stress present in many low SES homes may hinder infants’ level of engagement and attentiveness to learning opportunities.

Infants' Self-Regulation and Maternal Self-Efficacy

Researchers also highlight that mothers living in low-income homes often experience higher rates of depression and anxiety. While the association between maternal depression and anxiety and infants' joint attention abilities remains unclear, Bates et al. (2020) demonstrate that higher levels of depression in lower SES mothers can hinder infants' self-regulation skills through its effect on poorer maternal self-efficacy. In other words, mothers who experience higher rates of depression also tend to show less confidence and self-esteem in their parenting abilities, thus influencing the infants' development of self-regulation. Authors also highlight how improving maternal self-efficacy may help buffer the effects of poverty and maternal depression on infant self-regulation, highlighting the importance of interventions that support and equip mothers in their ability to care for their children.

If, indeed, the higher levels of academic challenges, behavior problems, and poor emotional regulation in many impoverished children are associated, at least in part, with deficits in joint attention and/or poor self-regulation in infancy, methods for approaching and intervening for this population must be tailored accordingly. Interventions that target attention, self-regulation, and maternal self-efficacy in early infancy with low SES families could contribute to positive cascading effects on the child’s academic, socio-emotional, and cognitive development, impacting not only the child’s success but future generations to come.

References

Pew Research Center (2020). "Most Americans Say There is Too Much Economic Inequality in the U.S., but Fewer Than Half Call it a Top Priority."

American Psychological Association. (2009, December 28). Effects of poverty, hunger and homelessness on children and youth. http://www.apa.org/pi/families/poverty

Goodman, Rachael D., Miller, M. David., & West-Olatunji, Cirecie A. (2012). Traumatic stress, socioeconomic status, and academic achievement among primary school students. Psychological Trauma, 4(3), 252-259.

Tomasello, M. and Carpenter, M. (2007), Shared intentionality. Developmental Science, 10: 121-125. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-7687.2007.00573.x

Clearfield, M.W. and Jedd, K.E. (2013), The Effects of Socio-Economic Status on Infant Attention. Inf. Child Dev., 22: 53-67. https://doi.org/10.1002/icd.1770

Reilly EB, Stallworthy IC, Mliner SB, Troy MF, Elison JT, Gunnar MR. Infants' abilities to respond to cues for joint attention vary by family socioeconomic status. Infancy. 2021 Mar;26(2):204-222. doi: 10.1111/infa.12380. Epub 2020 Dec 30. PMID: 33378584.

Bates RA, Salsberry PJ, Justice LM, Dynia JM, Logan JAR, Gugiu MR, Purtell KM. Relations of Maternal Depression and Parenting Self-Efficacy to the Self-Regulation of Infants in Low-Income Homes. J Child Fam Stud. 2020 Aug;29(8):2330-2341. doi: 10.1007/s10826-020-01763-9. Epub 2020 Jun 25. PMID: 33584088; PMCID: PMC7880128.

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