Despite the fact that many industrialized nations are enjoying unprecedented levels of economic growth, the problem of poverty has not dissipated, and has, in fact, been exacerbated by the ever-widening chasm between the social classes. Of all poverty’s victims, though, it is children who are most profoundly affected by the consequences of being poor (UNICEF, 2007). According to UNICEF’s most recent annual report, State of the World’s Children, at least half of the two billion children in the world are living in poverty (UNICEF, 2007). While international human rights organizations such as UNICEF and the United Nations have developed both goals and interventions intended to improve the conditions of poor people, and children in particular, the fact remains that children in low-income families and communities are more likely to suffer from “severely adverse outcomes” compared to their economically privileged peers (Ridge, 2002, p. 1).  These outcomes include compromised physical and psychological health, educational deficits, and limited vocational and social opportunities, both in the short-term and over the long-term. Understanding the complexity of this problem can point towards possibilities for more effective intervention.

Because children are in the least powerful position to change or improve their circumstances, they comprise the group that is most vulnerable to the negative consequences of poverty. While poverty is a world-wide problem, it may seem surprising that poverty rate is particularly elevated among highly industrialized nations; in fact, the United States has the highest poverty rate of all other developed countries (Micklewright, 2003). According to Micklewright (2003), “Over one in five children in the US are classified as poor [while] between one in six and one in eight [are classified as poor] in the other English-speaking countries” (p. 2). This alarming statistic has provoked international human rights groups such as the United Nations to set goals and implement interventions intended to decrease the persistence and pervasiveness of poverty, thereby improving health and educational outcomes for children (Archer, 2006). Scholars note, however, that decreasing poverty is an incredibly challenging task, and despite the aggressive efforts directed towards poverty intervention, it remains true that “Over 100 million children have never been to school and almost two-thirds of them are girls” (Archer, 2006, p. 23). The immediate and long-term implications of the impact that poverty has on children’s education cannot be underestimated, as the quality of one’s education is directly correlated to other markers of social progress and social problems. As Archer (2006), in both developing and industrialized nations, “the education of girls [in particular] has a crucial impact on improving maternal health, reducing infant mortality, limiting the spread of HIV/AIDS, empowering women and reducing poverty” (p. 23). Poverty has also been identified as a predictor of family dysfunction and disintegration, learning and behavioral disabilities, developmental arrests, school attrition, and limited continuing education and vocational prospects (Hebel, 2006; MacMillan, 2007; Riley, 2006; Scherer, 2006).

Poverty either causes or exacerbates these and other social and learning problems because the lack of economic resources tends to signify the marginal position of the individual in society. From this position, it is incredibly difficult for the individual and his or her family to access quality services and opportunities, ranging from health and child care to education. While many people might argue that health care, child care, and education should be available and of equal quality for all people regardless of their economic standing, the fact is that such services are often not available in poor communities, or their quality is questionable. As researchers Loeb, Fuller, Kagan, and Carrol (2004) note, infants and young children in poor areas are more likely to spend time in childcare than the same cohort from wealthier communities due to welfare-to-work reforms, a fact which many observers consider positive because children are exposed to learning from an earlier age. Loeb and colleagues (2004) caution, however, against a facile interpretation of this phenomenon, indicating that “little is known about the effects of center care typically available in poor communities” (p. 47). As their results suggest, children only really benefit from early learning experiences when the caregivers are “more sensitive and responsive” and more educated (Loeb et al., 2004, p. 47). Unfortunately, though, it is often the case that the caregivers and teachers in low-income child care centers are less likely to exhibit these characteristics when compared to their colleagues in wealthier areas (Loeb et al., 2004).

This phenomenon persists beyond the daycare years. As Taylor, Pearson, Peterson, and Rodriguez (2003) observe, the national problem of a teacher shortage in general means that schools in metropolitan areas that are considered at-risk and underfunded are less attractive to highly qualified and experienced teachers. These teachers have the bargaining power to seek teaching posts in the schools and districts which are most appealing to them. This phenomenon has serious consequences in poor schools, considering that qualified teachers who are committed to equipping their students with higher-order critical thinking skills and the opportunities to apply those skills are more likely to observe positive academic outcomes in terms of actual learning and standardized score performance (Taylor et al., 2003). Younger and less experienced teachers are less likely to possess these skills (Taylor et al., 2003). The same is true of poor rural schools. These areas are geographically isolated and students generally have few examples in the community of well-educated adults who are successful (Hebel, 2006). As Hebel (2006) points out, few jobs in rural communities require a college degree, and cycles of poverty are perpetuated across generations. The problem is considered to be particularly acute among the children of immigrant families, as their parents often lack the necessary language skills that would permit them to intervene and advocate for improved learning conditions and resources (Hebel, 2006).

Regardless of their geographical position, however, all poor children are generally more vulnerable to learning problems compared to children from economically stable families. In the classroom, poor children’s opportunities to learn are impacted negatively by an array of other variables. Not surprisingly, poor children often have inadequate nutrition, and their ability to pay attention in the classroom and perform according to academic and behavioral expectations may be compromised as a result. Poorer children are also more likely to be exposed to other familial and social problems, such as domestic violence and general family instability and fragmentation (Riley, 2006). The stress of being poor has dramatic impacts on families, who may succumb to the pressures of poverty by acting out against one another. As a result, it is not uncommon for poor children to be uprooted from their homes, putting them into transition states as highly mobile individuals who lack stability and continuity in their social and academic environments (Riley, 2006). Clearly, such conditions can serve as formidable barriers to the motivation and ability to acquire new information, knowledge, and skills. Additionally, this condition of poverty tends to restrict children’s abilities to acquire secondary learning opportunities in which classroom lessons are reinforced. Children from poorer communities are less likely, for example, to have access to institutions such as museums, zoos, and other community resources where knowledge can be tested and expanded upon.

Finally, there is a substantial body of research which suggests that poverty is a precursor to cognitive and psychological deficits and disturbances (MacMillan, 2007). MacMillan (2007) contends that “being exposed to poverty and social exclusion” especially when it is severe and persistent, “might play a[n]…influential role in the development of mental illness” (p. 4). Again, the lack of qualified teachers and support staff in poorer schools can exacerbate the effects of this problem. As Scherer (2006) signals, the impoverished child with learning deficits is often overlooked altogether, or is incorrectly classified as disabled or lacking in potential. Both misinterpretations are dangerous. In the case of a child whose actual disabilities go unnoticed, undiagnosed, and untreated, the risk of school truancy and attrition is high (Scherer, 2006). The ripple effect, of course, is that the child without a diploma or the prospect of pursuing a GED or college degree is likely to have “dire employment prospects,” thereby perpetuating the existing condition of poverty (Scherer, 2006, p. 7). There are also negative outcomes for those children who are incorrectly diagnosed, as it is often the case that the child could perform better if only he or she received an “effective intervention” to prevent the negative short-term and long-term outcomes (Scherer, 2006).

The problem of poverty in general, and among children in particular, should concern all human beings. As Micklewright (2003) notes, “Poverty among children diverts resources that could be used elsewhere, reduces the stock of human capital, and creates a variety of social problems from which all people suffer. [Thus,] child poverty may … improve[e] societal well-being in various ways” (p. 1). For these reasons, the increasing disparities between the socioeconomic classes, both in the United States and abroad, must continue to be a subject of study, dialogue, and direct intervention. Poverty, if left unaddressed, can have significant negative impacts on society at large, but especially on children who, even when resilient, are least able to do anything effective to change their conditions (Riley, 2006).


Archer, D. (2006). A right to a decent education. Adults Learning, 17(9), 23-27.

Hebel, S. (2006). In rural America, few people harvest 4-year degrees. The Chronicle of Higher Education, 53(11), 22.

Loeb, S., Fuller, B., Kagan, S.L., & Carrol, B. (2004). Child care in poor communities: Early  learning effects of type, quality, and stability. Child Development, 75(1), 47-65.

MacMillan, I. (2007). Survey finds social conditions key to mental health of children. Learning Disability Practice, 10(2), 4.

Micklewright, J. (2003). Child poverty in English-speaking countries. Retrieved April 15, 2007 from

Ridge, T. (2002). Childhood poverty and social exclusion: From a child’s perspective. Bristol, England: The Policy Press.

Riley, K.W. (2006). Resilient children in an imperfect world. Leadership, 35(4), 20-38.

Scherer, M. (2006). The silent strugglers. Educational Leadership, 63(5), 7.

Taylor, B.M., Pearson, P.D., Peterson, D.S., & Rodriguez, M.S. (2003). Reading growth in high poverty classrooms: The influence of teacher practices that encourage cognitive engagement in literacy learning. The Elementary School Journal, 104(1), 3-28.

UNICEF. (2007). The state of the world’s children 2007Executive summary. Retrieved on April  15, 2007 from _Children_2007_Executive_Summary_E.pdf