The nation’s economic crisis has deeply affected the lives of millions of Americans. Skyrocketing foreclosures and job layoffs have pulled the rug out from under many families, particularly those living in low-income communities. Deepening poverty is inextricably linked with rising levels of homelessness and food insecurity/hunger for many Americans and children are particularly affected by these conditions. Find out below a summary of the myriad effects of poverty, homelessness, and hunger on children and youth. Various resources (from APA and other organizations) have also been listed that provide information and tools on ways to fight poverty in America.
For more information on APA’s work on issues surrounding socioeconomic status, please see the Office of Socioeconomic Status.
What are the current poverty and unemployment rates for Americans?
The ongoing economic crisis has negatively affected the livelihoods of millions of Americans. According the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (2012), the unemployment rate is 8.3 percent as of January 2012.
Despite the data showing a decline of 0.2 percent from December 2011, the unemployment rate is still high by all accounts, having doubled since the beginning of the recession in December 2007.
U.S. Census Bureau data shows that the U.S. poverty rate rose to 15.1 percent (46.2 million) in 2010, an increase from 14.3 percent (approximately 43.6 million) in 2009 and the highest level since 1993. In 2008, 13.2 percent (39.8 million) Americans lived in relative poverty.
In 2000, the poverty rate for individuals was 12.2 percent and for families was 9.3 percent.
In 2010, the poverty threshold, or poverty line, was $22,314 for a family of four.
Over 15 percent of the population fell below this threshold in 2010.
The percentage of people in deep poverty was 13.5 percent of all Blacks and 10.9 percent of all Hispanics, compared to 5.8 percent of Asians and 4.3 percent of Whites.
While non-Hispanic Whites still constitute the largest single group of Americans living in poverty, ethnic minority groups are overrepresented (27.4 percent African American; 28.4 percent American Indian and Alaskan Native; 26.6 percent Hispanic, and 12.1 percent Asian and Pacific Islander compared with 9.9 percent non-Hispanic White).
These disparities are associated with the historical marginalization of ethnic minority groups and entrenched barriers to good education and jobs.
Where is child poverty concentrated?
U.S. Census data reveals that from 2009 to 2010, the total number of children under age 18 living in poverty increased to 16.4 million from 15.5 million. Child poverty rose from 20.7 percent in 2009, to 22 percent in 2010, and this is the highest it has ever been since 1993.
Racial and ethnic disparities in poverty rates persist among children. The poverty rate for Black children was 38.2 percent; 32.3 percent for Hispanic children; 17 percent for non-Hispanic White children; and 13 percent for Asian children.
The National Center for Children in Poverty reports that 17.2 million children living in the U.S. have a foreign-born parent, and 4.2 million children of immigrant parents are poor. It is reported that child poverty in immigrant families is more closely related to low-wage work and barriers to valuable work supports.
The Population Reference Bureau (2010) reports that 24 percent of the 75 million children under age 18 in the U.S. live in a single-mother family. The poverty rate for children living in female-householder families (no spouse present) was 42.2 percent in 2010; 7 in 10 children living with a single mother are poor or low-income, compared to less than a third (32 percent) of children living in other types of families. A staggering 50.9 percent of female-headed Hispanic households with children below 18 years of age live in poverty (48.8 percent for Blacks; 31.6 percent Asian, and 32.1 percent non-Hispanic White).
Single-mother headed households are more prevalent among African American and Hispanic families contributing to ethnic disparities in poverty.
What are the effects of child poverty?
Psychological research has demonstrated that living in poverty has a wide range of negative effects on the physical and mental health and wellbeing of our nation’s children. Poverty impacts children within their various contexts at home, in school, and in their neighborhoods and communities.
Poverty is linked with negative conditions such as substandard housing, homelessness, inadequate nutrition and food insecurity, inadequate child care, lack of access to health care, unsafe neighborhoods, and underresourced schools which adversely impact our nation’s children.
Poorer children and teens are also at greater risk for several negative outcomes such as poor academic achievement, school dropout, abuse and neglect, behavioral and socioemotional problems, physical health problems, and developmental delays.
These effects are compounded by the barriers children and their families encounter when trying to access physical and mental health care.
Economists estimate that child poverty costs an estimated $500 billion a year to the U.S. economy; reduces productivity and economic output by 1.3 percent of GDP; raises crime and increases health expenditure (Holzer et al., 2008).
Poverty and academic achievement
Poverty has a particularly adverse effect on the academic outcomes of children, especially during early childhood.
Chronic stress associated with living in poverty has been shown to adversely affect children’s concentration and memory which may impact their ability to learn.
The National Center for Education Statistics reports that in 2008, the dropout rate of students living in low-income families was about four and one-half times greater than the rate of children from higher-income families (8.7 percent versus 2.0 percent).
The academic achievement gap for poorer youth is particularly pronounced for low-income African American and Hispanic children compared with their more affluent White peers.
Underresourced schools in poorer communities struggle to meet the learning needs of their students and aid them in fulfilling their potential.
Inadequate education contributes to the cycle of poverty by making it more difficult for low-income children to lift themselves and future generations out of poverty.
Poverty and psychosocial outcomes
Children living in poverty are at greater risk of behavioral and emotional problems.
Some behavioral problems may include impulsiveness, difficulty getting along with peers, aggression, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and conduct disorder.
Some emotional problems may include feelings of anxiety, depression, and low self-esteem.
Poverty and economic hardship is particularly difficult for parents who may experience chronic stress, depression, marital distress and exhibit harsher parenting behaviors. These are all linked to poor social and emotional outcomes for children.
Unsafe neighborhoods may expose low-income children to violence which can cause a number of psychosocial difficulties. Violence exposure can also predict future violent behavior in youth which places them at greater risk of injury and mortality and entry into the juvenile justice system.
Poverty and physical health
Children and teens living in poorer communities are at increased risk for a wide range of physical health problems:
Low birth weight
Poor nutrition which is manifested in the following ways:
Inadequate food which can lead to food insecurity/hunger
Lack of access to healthy foods and areas for play or sports which can lead to childhood overweight or obesity
Chronic conditions such as asthma, anemia, and pneumonia
Risky behaviors such as smoking or engaging in early sexual activity
Exposure to environmental contaminants, e.g., lead paint and toxic waste dumps
Exposure to violence in their communities which can lead to trauma, injury, disability, and mortality
Resources on Poverty
Resolution on School Dropout Prevention (PDF, 22KB)
American Psychological Association (2000). Resolution on poverty and socioeconomic status.
American Psychological Association, Task Force on Socioeconomic Status (2007). Report of
the APA task force on socioeconomic status (PDF, 518KB).
Federal Interagency Forum on Child and Family Statistics (July, 2011). America’s children: key
national indicators of well-being, 2011 (PDF, 5.33MB). Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing
Holzer, H., Schanzenbach, D., Duncan, G., & Ludwig, J. (2008). The economic costs of
childhood poverty in the United States. Journal of Children and Poverty, 14, 41-61.
Mather, M. (2010, May). U.S. children in single-mother families (PDF, 280KB). Population Reference Bureau.
U.S. Census Bureau (September 2011). Income, poverty, and health insurance coverage in the
United States: 2010 (PDF, 2.31MB).
U. S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, Institute of Education
Sciences (2010). Trends in high school dropout and completion rates in the United
States: 1972–2008 (NCES 2011-012).
U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics (2012, February 3). Economic news
release: employment situation summary.
Wight, V., Thampi, K., & Michelle Chau, M. (2011, April). Poor children by parents’ nativity:
what do we know? National Center for Children in Poverty. Retrieved from Mailman
School of Public Health, Columbia University website
What is the prevalence of child hunger in America?
The Federal Interagency Forum on Child and Family Statistics reports that in 2010, 22 percent of children under the age of 18 lived in food-insecure households, and one percent in households with very low food security.
Food insecure means that at some point during the year, the household had limited access to an adequate supply of food due to lack of money or other resources.
In 2009 – 2010, 21 states and the District of Columbia had at least one in four households with children (25 percent or more) facing food hardship, according to the Food Research and Action Center (FRAC). The District of Columbia had the highest rates of food hardship for households with children, followed by Mississippi, Alabama, Florida, Arkansas, Nevada, Arizona, Louisiana, Kentucky, and Tennessee. FRAC data shows that Metropolitan areas in the South and South West, and California were hard hit by food hardships. Use of food stamps increased to 16% (13.6 million households) in 2010, according to U.S. Census Bureau. States with the largest increase (over 30%) in food stamp use included Nevada, Idaho, Colorado, Wisconsin and Florida.
Approximately 1 in 4 Americans utilize at least one of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) nutrition assistance programs each year (USDA, 2011).
The Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) reports that 53% of infants born in the United States receive support from the Women, Infants & Children (WIC) program.
In 2010, more than 31.7 million children each day got their lunch through the National School Lunch Program. Children from families with incomes at or below 130 percent of the poverty level are eligible for free meals. Approximately, 20 million children received free and reduced price lunch, according to the Food Research and Action Center (2010).
What are the effects of hunger and undernutrition on child development?
Maternal undernutrition during pregnancy increases the risk of negative birth outcomes, including premature birth, low birth weight, smaller head size, and lower brain weight.
Babies born prematurely are vulnerable to health problems and are at increased risk for developing learning problems when they reach school-age.
In infancy and early childhood
The first three years of a child’s life are a period of rapid brain development. Too little energy, protein, and nutrients during this sensitive period can lead to lasting deficits in cognitive, social, and emotional development.
Protein-energy malnutrition, iron deficiency anemia, iodine, zinc, and other vitamin deficiencies in early childhood can cause brain impairment.
Failure to thrive, the failure to grow and reach major developmental milestones as the result of undernutrition, affects 5-10% of American children under the age of three.
Hunger reduces a child’s motor skills, activity level, and motivation to explore the environment. Movement and exploration are important to cognitive development, and more active children elicit more stimulation and attention from their caregivers, which promotes social and emotional development.
Families often work to keep their food-insecurity hidden, and some parents may feel shame or embarrassment that they are not able to feed their children adequately. Children may also feel stigmatized, isolated, ashamed, or embarrassed by their lack of food.
A community sample that classified low-income children ages six to twelve as “hungry”, “at-risk for hunger”, or “not hungry” found that hungry children were significantly more likely to receive special education services, to have repeated a grade in school, and to have received mental health counseling than at-risk-for-hunger or not-hungry children.
In this same study, hungry children exhibited 7 to 12 times as many symptoms of conduct disorder (such as fighting, blaming others for problems, having trouble with a teacher, not listening to rules, stealing) than their at-risk or not-hungry peers.
Among low-income children, those classified as “hungry” show increased anxious, irritable, aggressive, and oppositional behavior in comparison to peers.
Additionally, the multiple stressors associated with poverty result in significantly increased risk for developing psychiatric and functional problems.
School-age children who experience severe hunger are at increased risk for the following negative outcomes:
Chronic health conditions
Stressful life conditions
Internalizing behavior, including depression, anxiety, withdrawal, and poor self-esteem
The effects of undernutrition depend on the length and severity of the period of hunger and may be mediated by other factors.
Improved nutrition, increased environmental stimulation, emotional support, and secure attachment to parents/caregivers can compensate for early undernutrition.
Babies who receive enough nutrition while in the womb appear to show higher cognitive performance in later childhood.
The human brain is flexible and can recover from early deficits, but this also means that brain structures remain vulnerable to further negative experiences throughout childhood.
Breastfeeding, attentive caretaking, and attention to environmental factors, such as sleep cycles and noise, can also promote healthy development.
Resources on Hunger
Eat Right When Money’s Tight Tip Sheet (PDF, 928KB)
Recipes and Tips for Healthy, Thrifty Meals (PDF, 253KB)
The USDA’s nutrition programs are available to assist adults and children experiencing food insecurity.
Women, Infants and Children (WIC) offers supplemental nutrition and other services to low-income pregnant women, mothers, and children under age five.
Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly the Food Stamp Program, helps low-income families purchase food.
Food Research and Action Center (2011, August). Food hardship in America, 2010: Households
with and without children (PDF, 226KB).
Kleinman, R., Murphy, M., Little, M., Pagano, M., Wehler, C., Regal, K., & Jellinek, M. (1998). Hunger in children in the United States: Potential behavioral and emotional correlates. Pediatrics, 101(1). doi: 10.1542/peds.101.1.e3
Tanner, E. & Finn-Stevenson, M. (2002). Nutrition and brain development: Social policy implications. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 72(2), 182-193.
U.S. Department of Agriculture, Economic Research Service (2009, November). Household food security in the United States, 2008 (PDF, 404KB). (Economic Research Report No. 83).
U.S. Department of Agriculture (2011, November 29). USDA announces efforts to increase
nutrition assistance to low-income families: Access and participation key to delivering benefits or Americans in need.
U.S. Department of Agriculture, Food and Nutrition Service (2012, February 17). WIC at a
U.S. Department of Agriculture, Food and Nutrition Service (October, 2011). National School
Lunch Program (PDF, 54KB).
Weinreb, L., Wehler, C., Perloff, J., Scott, R., Hosmer, D., Sagor, L., & Gunderson, C. (2002).
Hunger: Its impact on children’s health and mental health. Pediatrics, 110(4). Doi:
The American Psychological Association 2009 Presidential Task Force on Psychology’s Contribution to End Homelessness defined homelessness to exist when people lack safe, stable, and appropriate places to live, including sheltered and unsheltered people, and those in overcrowded and doubled-up situations.
Who are homeless children and youth in America?
In 2009, an estimated 656,129 people experienced homelessness in the United States on a given night, according to the National Alliance to End Homelessness. An estimated 2.3 to 3.5 million Americans experience homelessness at least once a year. Homelessness affects people of all ages, geographic areas, occupations, and ethnicities, but occurs disproportionately among people of color.
Access to permanent and adequate shelter is a basic human need; however, the ongoing economic downturn (composed of the foreclosure crisis, spiking unemployment, worsening poverty rates, and inadequate low-cost housing) is likely to increase rates of homelessness.
The National Association for Education of Homeless Children and Youth reports that during the 2009-2010 school year, 939,903 homeless children and youth were enrolled in public schools, a 38% increase from the 2006-2007 school year. The data is an underestimate since it does not reflect pre-school age children, toddlers and infants.
The United States Conference of Mayors (2009) reports that in 2010 more than 1.6 million children (1 in 45 children) in America were homeless and that approximately 650,000 are below age 6. Families with children are a major segment of the homelessness population. Families with children comprise a third of the homeless population and are typically comprised of a single mother in her late twenties with two young children.
Approximately 47 percent of children in homeless families are Black, although Black children make up just 15 percent of the U.S. child population (Child Trends Databank, 2012). On the other hand, although White children make up 66% of the child population, they account for 38% of homeless children. Hispanic children make up 13%, whereas Native American children make up 2% of the homeless children population.
Homeless single mothers often have histories of violent victimization with over one third having post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and over half experiencing major depression while homeless. An estimated 41 percent develop dependency on alcohol and drugs and are often in poor physical health. Maternal depression and parental substance abuse has a series of negative outcomes for children.
Unaccompanied youth (sometimes referred to as runaway youth) may number between 575,000 to 1.6 million annually and typically range from ages 16 to 22. The major causes of homelessness for unaccompanied youth are mental illness, substance abuse, and lack of affordable housing.
Family conflict is the primary cause of their homelessness with 46% having experienced abuse and an estimated 20-40% identifying as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgendered (LGBT).
Homelessness is traumatic for children because they often experience frequent moves, family split-ups, and living in crowded places before using homeless shelters (National Center on Family Homelessness, 2011).
States in the south and south west where poverty is more prevalent have more homeless children than states in the north and northeast. Homelessness affects children’s health and wellbeing, their brain development, causes stress, and hinders readiness for school.
What are the risk factors for homelessness in children and youth?
Extreme poverty is the strongest predictor of homelessness for families. These families are often forced to choose between housing and other necessities for their survival. At least 11% of American children living in poverty are homeless.
Female-headed households (particularly by women with limited education and job skills) are also particularly vulnerable. The current economic climate has made the labor market even less hospitable as many of them do not have more than a high school diploma or GED.
Teen parents are also particularly at risk of homelessness as they often lack the education and income of adults who become parents.
Lack of affordable housing is also a risk factor for homelessness, particularly for families who devote more than 50% of household income to paying rent or those who experience a foreclosure. Foreclosures affect vulnerable tenants as well as homeowners who are delinquent in their mortgage payments.
Substance abusing or physically violent parents and stepparents are the major drivers of homelessness in runaway youth, particularly for those who identify as GLBT.
What are the outcomes of homelessness for children and youth?
Homelessness has particularly adverse effects on children and youth including hunger, poor physical and mental health, and missed educational opportunities.
Homeless children lack stability in their lives with 97% having moved at least once on an annual basis, which leads to disruptions in schooling and negatively impacts academic achievement.
Schooling for homeless children is often interrupted and delayed, with homeless children twice as likely to have a learning disability, repeat a grade, or to be suspended from school.
Homelessness and hunger are closely intertwined. Homeless children are twice as likely to experience hunger as their non-homeless peers. Hunger has negative effects on the physical, social, emotional and cognitive development of children.
A quarter of homeless children have witnessed violence and 22% have been separated from their families. Exposure to violence can cause a number of psychosocial difficulties for children both emotionally (depression, anxiety, withdrawal) and behaviorally (aggression, acting out).
Half of school age homeless children experience problems with depression and anxiety and one in five homeless preschoolers have emotional problems that require professional care.
Homelessness is linked to poor physical health for children including low birth weight, malnutrition, ear infections, exposure to environmental toxins, and chronic illness (e.g. asthma). Homeless children also are less likely to have adequate access to medical and dental care.
Unaccompanied youth are often more likely to grapple with mental health (depression, anxiety, and PTSD) and substance abuse problems.
Many runaway youth engage in sexually risky behaviors (sometimes for their own survival), which places them at risk of HIV, other STDs, and unintended pregnancies. Also, emerging research has shown that GLBT homeless youth are 7 times more likely to be victims of violent crime.
Resources on Homelessness
CYF News – Winter 2009 – Homeless and Runaway Youth (PDF, 5.21MB)
The Department of Housing and Urban Development has a number of resources:
Bassuk, E., Murphy, C., Coupe, N., Kenney, R., & Beach, C. (December 2011). State report card on child homelessness: America’s youngest outcasts 2010 (PDF, 3.41MB). Retrieved from National Center on Family homelessness website
Child Trends Databank (2012). Homeless children and youth.
Mallett, S., & Rosenthal, D. (2009). Physically violent mothers are a reason for young people leaving home. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 24(7), 1165-1174.
National Alliance to End Homelessness (2011, January). State of homelessness in America. Homelessness Research Institute.
National Association for Education of Homeless Children and Youth (2011). Facts about homeless education.
United States Conference of Mayors (2009, December). Hunger and homelessness survey: A status report on hunger and homelessness in America’s cities: A 27-city survey (PDF, 1.24MB).
What you can do to help
What can you do to help children and families struggling with poverty, hunger, and homelessness?
Volunteer your time with charities and organizations that provide assistance to low-income and homeless children and families.
Donate money, food, and clothing to homeless shelters and other charities in your community.
Donate school supplies and books to underresourced schools in your area.
Make your voice heard! Support public policy initiatives that seek to:
Improve access to physical, mental, and behavioral health care for low-income
Americans by eliminating barriers such as limitations in health care coverage.
Create a “safety net” for children and families that provides real protection against the harmful effects of economic insecurity.
Increase the minimum wage, affordable housing and job skills training for low-income and homeless Americans.
Intervene in early childhood to support the health and educational development of low-income children.
Provide support for low-income and food insecure children such as Head Start, the National School Lunch Program, and the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) authorization.
Increase resources for public education and access to higher education.
Support research on poverty and its relationship to health, education, and well-being.