If a child grows up in a crowded home in a low-quality structure with a lot of noise, that child is much more likely to suffer mental and cognitive developmental debilitation than one who grows up without these environmental conditions. Add in social risk factors like exposure to violence, household turmoil, and separation from a parent, and that child’s development becomes seriously injured.
These risk factors are the reality for children growing up in poverty.
Gary Evans, Design and Environmental Analysis and Human Development, has spent the past two decades studying child development in low socioeconomic communities.
Evans has always been an environmental and developmental psychologist, studying how physical environments influence children’s development. Reading the anthropologist Edward T. Hall’s The Hidden Dimension drew Evans to environmental psychology. He became passionate about the idea that one could use psychological theories and perspectives while examining environmental factors. Evans’ focus on children, in part, stems from the fact that environmental conditions have much more impact at an early age.
The convergence of interest in the physical environment and human development is a unique element to Cornell’s College of Human Ecology, says Evans. “One of the very interesting things about the college is that it’s not organized by disciplines,” he says. “You need to bring people with different perspectives together to solve problems, and that’s one of the very rudimentary structures of this college."
Children in Poverty
It wasn’t until 20 years ago, however, that Evans became interested in the idea that poverty is bad for children’s development.
“In hindsight it’s relatively simple, but it’s turned out to be very important,” says Evans. “It’s not just that low-income kids are exposed to noise, crowding, or more difficult family interactions—it’s that they’re much more likely to be exposed to the confluence of these risks.”
People working in this field had traditionally tried to isolate an individual risk factor and study its impact—Evans included—which is why this confluence of risk factors approach has become so important. No one had previously looked at the combined effect of multiple risk factors, Evans says, to account for the ill effects of poverty. Not surprisingly, Evans found that exposure to cumulative risk is much more deleterious to development.
For the past 20 years, Evans has followed children who grew up at or below the poverty line, as well as children who grew up at two or four times the poverty line (the income levels that the majority of Americans currently occupy). Through this study, Evans identified the physical and psychosocial risk factors mentioned above. The data set has also provided critical insight into the possible pathways, such as stress, that could lead to developmental issues.
For example, Evans and his colleagues were able to use neuroimaging of the brains of around 50 of the study’s participants, half of whom grew up poor and the other half middle income. At this point, the participants were well past childhood and into their mid-20s. The brain imaging revealed that the two groups had different brain structure and function.
“Levels of physiological stress look like they may be part of the reason,” says Evans. “The brains have changed—it doesn’t mean that it’s irrevocable and that you can’t do anything about it, but it does mean that it’s a lot harder, because once the trajectory is in place, it’s difficult to dislodge it.”
The Subsequent Adults
Evans and his research team specifically found that the adults who were children of poverty had a more difficult time performing emotional regulation tasks. The researchers had participants look at emotional faces and neutral faces, and asked them to both experience the emotions and then regulate their emotions. Adults who grew up in low-income environments had more trouble regulating their emotions, which was also mirrored in different brain functioning in the prefrontal cortex. Moreover, these emotional regulation abilities may have been altered by early exposure to stress.
Similarly, in Evans’s longitudinal study, he found that children who grew up in low-income environments had a higher risk of mental health challenges and psychological distress. He also notes that there is not as much upward mobility as the “enduring American myth” suggests.
“Half of low-income children, maybe more, will wind up being in the bottom fifth of income as adults,” he says. “There is not nearly as much upward mobility as many Americans believe.” Again, Evans points to the confluence of risk that these children experience early on in life.
The problem of child development and poverty is interwoven with many of the major societal challenges and issues that America faces.
Evans is summarizing this work and others’ research into a broader book on poverty and child development. In it, he will examine the pathways that make growing up poor so detrimental to children.
“This book is trying to get a feel of what we know about child poverty, how do we define it, what are the facts, and what are some of the things that childhood poverty is associated with?” says Evans. “How might we explain the overwhelming evidence that it’s a bad thing to grow up poor and try to look at why that might happen?”
The forthcoming book is not prescriptive with concrete solutions for childhood poverty. But it will provide some level of guidance, Evans says, to the larger issue of disadvantage during childhood. The problem of child development and poverty is interwoven with “many of the major societal challenges and issues that America faces,” he says, from health care to voter turnout to the way in which social services are delivered and organized. “All of us should step back and start connecting some dots. We are paying an enormous economic and social price for the inefficient and harmful manner in which we currently support children and families as a society.”