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A War on Children: The Consequences of Poverty on Child Development

Young biracial girl staring into camera

This post continues our new blog series on poverty. As our nation reflects on its progress in fighting poverty over the last 50 years, this blog series will highlight how psychology can contribute further to this discussion.

By Roseanne L. Flores, PhD – (Member, APA Coalition for Psychology in Schools and Education)

In 2012, over 16 million children – 22% of all children – lived in families with incomes that fall below the federal poverty level. According to the National Center for Children in Poverty and the Children’s Defense Fund, Black, Hispanic, and American Indian children comprise the majority of children who are poor. Additionally, children of immigrant parents are at risk for being poor.

Poor children are at greater risk for physical and mental health problems than their wealthier peers, and growing up in poverty is associated with poor educational outcomes. So one might ask “if being raised in poverty leads to such deleterious consequences why are so many children living in the richest nation in the world living in poverty?” The answer lies within our policies. Over the last several years, children and their families have been casualties of a war waged on many safety net programs.

The Current Status of “The War on Poverty” and Child Development

In April, the Children Defense Fund’s Marian Wright Edelman gave testimony on the status of the War on Poverty before the House Budget Committee. Mrs. Edelman remarked that great strides have been made during the last 50 years, however, much remains to be done, particularly during these unstable economic times when many parents continue to be without jobs, and most often those jobs receive minimum wage and are barely able to make ends meet. She reminded the Committee of the role that safety net programs like Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), Medicaid, Aid to Families with Dependent Children (currently known as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families), Head Start and Early Head Start, the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP), and others have played in keeping children and families from falling through the cracks.

She cited research that demonstrates that when the basic needs of poor children are met they experience better health and educational outcomes. Furthermore, she emphasized that scientific evidence demonstrates that investment in quality early childhood education has a positive effect not only on successful child development, but also on the health of the economy. At the end of her testimony she reminded the Committee that there is no reason for children to be poor in the richest country in the world and that a failure to invest in our children now will be the detriment of the prosperity and security of our nation in the future.

Ensuring the Health and Well-Being of Our Children

Since the inception of the War on Poverty in 1964, psychologists and other health professionals have always been at the table to ensure that the policies and programs created to address the educational and health needs of children, were based on sound scientific evidence. Today this is no less true.

The science of early childhood development has demonstrated that early experiences affect the developing brain with positive experiences leading to better developmental outcomes for children. Moreover, for children in low-income families, access to quality early childhood education programs leads to better cognitive and social emotional outcomes. In addition, parents living in poverty with access to income supplements see better academic outcomes in their children.

Going forward, psychologists must continue to advocate for policies that are based on sound theoretical and scientific evidence that will ensure the social, physical, material and spiritual needs of our most vulnerable children and families are addressed. As Marian Wright Edelman so eloquently stated:

“We should have no poor children in the richest nation on Earth. It’s a shame. It is a moral blight, and it’s an economic—huge economic threat that we have 16.1 million poor children and over 7 million are living in extreme poverty in the richest nation on Earth. We don’t have a money problem. We have a profound values and priorities problem.”

Psychologists are not newcomers to the War on Poverty, and therefore we must continue to raise our voices and use our influence to address the inequalities that continue to plague our nation. We must help to end this war against our children.


Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University (2007). A science-based framework for early childhood policy: Using evidence to improve outcomes in learning, behavior, and health for vulnerable children. Cambridge, MA. Retrieved from:

Children’s Defense Fund (2014). The state of America’s children. Washington, DC. Retrieved from:

Children’s Defense Fund (2014). Marian Wright Edelman House Budget Committee Testimony. Retrieved from

Wight,V.R., Chau, M. & Aratani, Y. (2010). Who Are America’s Poor Children? The Official Story. New York, NY: National Center for Children in Poverty. Retrieved from:


Roseanne L. Flores is an Associate Professor in the Department of Psychology at Hunter College of the City University of New York. She received her PhD from the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. She is a Developmental Psychologist by training and was a National Head Start Fellow in the Office of Head Start in Washington, DC in 2009-2010. In addition to her work at the Office of Head Start Roseanne also worked at the Institute of Education Science in the National Center for Education Research creating a template for the dissemination of assessments instruments developed from research in the field. Prior to coming to the Office of Head Start, Dr. Flores was a Visiting Scholar at the Educational Testing Service in Princeton, NJ during the summer of 2009 where she worked in the areas of assessment, research and policy. More recently she served as a reviewer for the Race to the Top — Early Learning Challenge grant.

Dr. Flores has expertise in both quantitative and qualitative research methods, statistics, testing and measurement, and linguistic, cognitive and social development of children across various ages and cultural groups. Some of her current research examines the relationship between environmental risk factors, such as community violence, SES, obesity and food insecurity on the health and educational outcomes of minority children.

Image Source: Flickr user Len Radin via Creative Commons

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