Poverty in the United States has evolved, thus gaining a more broad definition beyond simple economic terms. Poverty includes not only financial measurement, but the lacking of material assets and resources, physical and mental health, information and education, and capabilities such as social belonging and cultural identity (Engle & Black, 2008). Poverty affects the ability for parents to prepare their children for adulthood, which is a transition made easier when more resources are available. Among the low-, mid-, and high-socioeconomic groups, a marked difference in development has been noted among adolescents with detriment placed upon those in poverty. Consequently, a more appropriate term for poverty would be “capability deprivation,” which is a debility that affects children, adolescent development, language acquisition, the home environment, mental health, and parenting efficacy, capacity, and health. Poverty is a debilitating issue for many children and families in the United States with evident effects upon education, language development, and the adolescent brain.
Poverty’s Effects on Family and Education
The U.S. education system has battled poverty’s influence for decades. According to a 2013 survey by the National Center for Education Statistics, 51% of public school students were considered low-income, and public schools in 40 states were comprised of 40% or more low-income students (Slade, 2015). More than 50% of children in rural areas and 37% of children in urban areas live in families whose income were 200% below the federal poverty threshold (Vernon-Feagans, Garrett-Peters, Willoughby, Mills-Koonce, & The Family Life Project Key Investigators, 2012). The number of children living in low-income families is staggering, but the consequences of poverty overwhelmingly point to detrimental development in adolescents. Low- socioeconomic families are more likely to experience economic insecurity and household instability, and long-term poverty has significantly higher effects on children’s outcomes than short-term poverty. Although the term “poverty” refers to more than just lack of money, studies have shown that a family’s monetary value affects children in all adolescent stages. In early childhood, money makes the most difference to cognitive outcomes, while in later childhood and adolescence, money makes more difference to social and behavior outcomes (Cooper & Stewart, 2013). Thus, the influence of poverty has the potential to span a child’s entire school career.
School readiness is built upon a child’s cognitive development. In as early as the second year of life, the documented effects of poverty have proven to cause the most influential and longest lasting of consequences. These risks influence adolescent school readiness which includes a broad list of developmental skills that allows a child to effectively learn in a school setting. Academic skills, motor skills, emotional and behavioral self-regulation, social skills, communication skills, attention, and the general motivation to learn are evaluative facets of school readiness. Consequently, each of these skills is influenced by poverty. Nurturing these skills come from several sources, such as parental involvement, home environment, and availability of resources. Children in low- socioeconomic households often do not receive these sources: typically, they spend less time outdoors and more time in front of the television, are less likely to participate in after school activities, receive less cognitive stimulation and challenging input, have less access to computers, libraries, museums, and other learning resources, and generally lack enrichment. Consequently, children from low- socioeconomic families prove to have lower cognitive and academic performance and more behavioral problems due to a lack of stimulating behaviors and home experiences. The level of education and academic performance for parents is also important regardless of socioeconomic status. Parents who are more highly educated may have better or more access to financial and educational resources, thus protecting their children from the repercussions of poverty.
In addition to the effects of poverty on adolescence, the family as a whole is also affected. Impoverished families typically reside in low-income communities which in turn lack in resources, particularly in the area of physical and mental health. With a rising average of learning disabilities and mental health disabilities, the need for physical and mental health availability is dire. Insufficient healthcare causes disadvantages for low- socioeconomic families to receive intervention for learning and mental disabilities. Insufficient education results in the inability for low-income families to recognize and comprehend potential issues within the early stages of mental health problems. Parents who do not have the information to effectively recognize a child’s struggle(s) often fail to seek intervention. Furthermore, health providers in low-income communities may not maintain updated information or opinion, resulting in lowest level practice, due to obliviousness of existing clinical trials or other interventionist resources. Low-income communities typically have a shortage of mental health providers which translates to insufficient or nonexistent availability of care for mental or learning disorders. Resources that are accessible within the community may be inflexible in terms of availability, delivery, or the qualifying factors that mandate a family’s ability to access said resources.
Undoubtedly, low- socioeconomic families experience an array of obstacles, and the children in these families tend to be deeply and negatively impacted. Yet as research shows, the children and communities who are most in need have the least availability of intervention and support. A child’s home life, emotional well-being, education, and more are directly affected by poverty. Fortunately, government implementation of preschool programs such as Head Start has filled the gap for many communities. Geared toward low-income communities and at-risk children, these programs provide assessments and intervention for learning, development, and language delays and disabilities.
Poverty’s Effects on Language
Humans have the innate capacity that makes language acquisition inevitable. This capacity is why psychologist Erika Hoff believes that all normal children in normal environments learn to talk. The success of the child’s language acquisition and the extent to which a child masters language, however, depends upon environmental supports, among many things. Evidently, poverty substantially influences both environment and language acquisition variability.
A family’s socioeconomic status is indicative of a child’s cognitive ability and literacy, as parent-child relations and conversations are crucial for a child’s language development. A child’s linguistic environment depends upon the language used by its parent or caregiver. The aforementioned importance on the parental education level comes into play, as limited education reduces a parent’s ability to provide a stimulating environment for their children. Young children in low-income families are less likely to be read to, with fewer than half of low-income parents reading to their preschoolers on a daily basis. Comparatively, 61% of families above the poverty line read to their young children daily (Engle & Black, 2008). The simple act of reading to a child contributes to their comprehension skills and phonemic awareness, which builds the foundation for all facets of language acquisition, vocabulary building, and reading.
Although the ability to acquire language is innate in human beings, the ability to read is not inherent in the human brain. Reading must be learned, and every skill that supports the ability to read must be taught. These skills include phonological awareness, fluency, phonics, comprehension, and vocabulary (Jensen, 2009). The variety, quality, and quantity of language that parents use with their children are also subjective to socioeconomic status. In one study in which two year old children were evaluated over the course of one week, children from low- socioeconomic families heard less words and less variety of words than their high- socioeconomic counterparts (Hoff, 2006). The children in the high- socioeconomic group had college-educated mothers who reliably talked more with their children, utilized a fuller vocabulary, and more frequently replied or questioned their children, interactively. The results of this study showed that children from low- socioeconomic families heard only 62,000 words on average per week compared to children in middle- and high- socioeconomic families who heard 125,000 and 215,000 words, respectively (Hoff, 2006). The study’s results offered insight into the beneficial qualities of increased attention and focus provided by more highly educated parents. These qualities are often lacking among low-income parents.
A child’s ability to build a comprehensive vocabulary continues to rely upon parental involvement beyond the second year of life’s stage of emerging language. In another study, a group of three year olds were evaluated in terms of their vocabulary growth patterns. Children of middle- to high- socioeconomic families were adding words to their vocabularies “at twice the rate of children in low-socioeconomic families” and the patterns of slow vocabulary growth “correlated with a slower cognitive pattern by the time children turn three” (Jensen, 2009). Yet another study evaluated the depth of vocabulary among three year olds. The study determined that socioeconomic status accounted for a 36% variance in vocabulary in terms of word variety, as well as a marked difference in size of vocabulary, ability to produce complex and spontaneous utterances, and quality of productive and receptive syntax. The study also determined that the average child from a low- socioeconomic family had a 500 word vocabulary by age three, whereas the average child from a high- socioeconomic family had a 1000 word vocabulary (Jensen, 2009). As they enter school, children are projected to know 13,000 words and to have been exposed to five million words. However, children from low- socioeconomic families do not typically meet this average.
A vocabulary that is lacking in depth and diversity are often due to the parent’s inability to partake in thoughtful and interactive conversations with their children. Children in poverty are exposed to a more limited range of language capabilities because their parents or caregivers also have limited vocabularies and language capabilities. Many facets of child development is linked with language usage, and a parent’s ability to positively and effectively nurture their child may be compromised by poverty. A low- socioeconomic parent tends to use simpler sentence structure and is often dominated by commands “rather than by explanations and elaboration with an increase in the percentage of negative comments made” (Engle & Black, 2008). Stress inevitably produced by the effects of poverty negatively impacts a parent’s emotional well-being and consequently impacts their children. This outcome interferes with the quality of interactions between parent and child, particularly with language, thus limiting a child’s linguistic environment. It is apparent that a parent’s literacy, ability to use complex and diverse language, and emotional availability is essential to a child’s language development.
Poverty’s Effects on the Adolescent Brain
A child’s language development, and development as a whole, is an astounding process. The innate ability of language acquisition and the language systems of the brain have been studied to produce a better understanding of how language works. Unfortunately, poverty has proven to be detrimental to language development, but also, brain development as well.
The developing adolescent brain has crucial needs in order to grow and mature healthily. These needs include, but are not limited to, strong parental bonds, consistent love and support, safe and stable environments, reciprocated emotional interactions, and enrichment through personalized complex activities. If these needs are not met, deficits hinder the production of new brain cells and the neural circuitry in children’s brains, which damages emotional and social development (Jensen, 2009). Emotional dysfunction, a lack of emotional regulation, and a narrow range of appropriate emotional responses, and stress are consequences of these deficits. When these needs are not met, a child experiences stressors that also affect their developing brains. Children in low- socioeconomic families are at a higher risk of experiencing neglect, abuse, familial violence, disruption, and separation. Stress affects the prefrontal cortex and the hippocampus, which are the areas in the brain responsible for learning, cognition, creativity, and working memory. Stress also shrinks neurons in the brain’s frontal lobes which is an area in which judgment, planning, and impulsivity function (Jensen, 2009). These impacts result in a reduction in learning capacity.
Another system within the brain that is affected by poverty-induced stress is the left perisylvian system which controls language learning. The left perisylvian system encompasses the semantic, syntactic, and phonological variables of language learning and is the foundation for reading, pronunciation, spelling, and writing skills (Jensen, 2009). To further examine the effects of socioeconomic status on the perisylvian system, a study was conducted to test the language skills of a diverse set of first grade students. The study found a 30% variance among the students with the low- socioeconomic students being negatively impacted. The study considered the scientific evidence of a longer course of maturation within the perisylvian region of the brain, producing a longer period of development within the language system. This extended period results in a higher susceptibility to environmental influences upon language development. As research and studies have determined, the environment in which a child prospers is entirely indicative of a child’s developmental success, particularly with language. Children subjected to impoverished standards often do not thrive as well as children in high- socioeconomic families and environments.
Poverty has an insurmountable impact on child development. Impoverished children experience a lack of resources within their communities. Impoverished parents are ill-equipped and oftentimes unable to fulfill a child’s developmental needs. Adolescent language acquisition is hindered in the low-income household, and even the adolescent brain suffers from inadequate and inappropriate influence. The effects of poverty have been linked to excessive student absences within the school system and increase the likelihood of school dropouts among students. Poverty and poverty-induced stressors walk hand-in-hand with impaired attention, concentration, cognition, creativity, memory, social skills, comprehension, vocabulary, and numerous other facets of the developing adolescent brain. Understanding the realities of poverty’s impact on education, language development, and the adolescent brain may lead to further support and enhancement strategies of children in need.
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