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Resources > TopicsParenting > Economic Adversity & Parenting

Economic Adversity and Parenting


Poverty, poor neighbourhoods, unemployment and a wide range of experiences that relate to social inequality have been found to increase parenting problems, including harshness and differential parenting across siblings. Parenting is a hard job and when parents are worrying about the basics, such as having enough money to feed and clothe children, or feel disadvantaged in their communities, they do not have the emotional resources to form optimal relationships with their children. For further reading about this see Duncan et al., 2010, Jenkins et al., 2003, Macmillan et al., 2004.

We know from rigorous scientific studies that improving the economic circumstances in which families live does have an impact on children. For instance, in the New Hope project in Milwaukee, working parents who lived in very poor neighbourhoods were eligible to enroll in the study. They were then randomly assigned to an intervention group or the control group. The intervention group was given a wage supplement, a child-care subsidy for any child under age 13 which could be used for childcare and subsidized health insurance. Two years later children in the intervention and the control families were followed up. There were strong protective effects for boys as a result of the intervention. They showed less problem behavior, better academics and better social skills when compared to the control group. Effects on girls’ development were not as marked. This shows us that improving the economic context in which parents raise children, has a beneficial effect on children. You can read more about this study by looking at Huston et al 2001, 2005.

Another study assessed children’s behavior before and after a casino was opened on a native reserve, which functioned to move many families out of poverty. When families were no longer living in poverty, their children’s behavior improved. The improvement in children’s behavior was explained by improvements in parenting. When parents had fewer financial worries, they were able to develop better relationships with their children, which in turn served to improve children’s behavior. You can read more about this study by looking at Costello et al., 2003.

Findings like these make it imperative that we develop policies for the families of young children that provide an economic buffer. When parents experience less economic disadvantage it is easier for them to concentrate on their children and their children’s needs.

Recommended Reading

Costello et al., 2003 Relationships between poverty and psychopathology: A natural experiment. Journal of the American Medical Association. Vol 290(15), 2023-2029.

Duncan, G. Ziol-Guest, K, Kalil, A. (2010) Early-childhood poverty and adult attainment, behavior and health. Child Development. Vol 81(1), 306-325.

Huston, Duncan et al., (2001) Work-based antipoverty programs for parents can enhance the school performance and social behavior of children. Child Development. Vol 72(1), 318-336.

Huston, Duncan et al., (2005) Impacts on children of a policy to promote employment and reduce poverty for low-income parents: New Hope after 5 years. Developmental Psychology. Vol 41(6), 902-918.

Jenkins, J. et al., (2003) The role of the shared family context in differential parenting. Developmental Psychology. Vol 39(1), 99-113.

Macmillan, R. et al. (2004) Linked lives: Stability and change in maternal circumstances and trajectories of antisocial behavior. Child Development. Vol 75(1), 205-220.

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