Poverty, stress and cognitive functioning


Social inequalities in income and wealth have a profound effect on the physical and mental health of children. For example, children from low-socioeconomic-status (SES) backgrounds are at greater risk for most forms of childhood morbidities compared to children from higher-SES backgrounds. [Note that the determination of SES is based on varying indices of family income (in relation to federally determined poverty thresholds), parental education (for example, those with college degrees versus those without), and parental occupation (for example, professional versus unskilled labor)]. Impoverished conditions during childhood are associated with poorer adult health, and low childhood SES may be the single most powerful contributor to premature mortality and morbidity worldwide. Significant relationships have been observed between SES and cognitive ability and between SES and academic achievement in childhood. In fact, SES has a stronger relationship with cognitive performance than does physical health. Children from low-SES backgrounds perform below children from higher-SES backgrounds on tests of intelligence and academic achievement. In addition, SES has been found to have a major effect on language development. For example, one study found that the average vocabulary size of 3-year-old children from families receiving welfare was less than half the size of the average vocabulary of children from higher-SES (professional) families. Low-SES children are also more likely to fail courses, be placed in special education, and drop out of high school compared to high-SES children.