Childhood poverty, living below the line

When science meets passion, an interview with Lauren Fasig Caldwell, JD, PhD.

By Ieshia Haynie

Lauren Fasig Caldwell, JD, PhDLauren Fasig Caldwell, JD, PhD, directs the American Psychological Association’s Children, Youth and Families Office. She hails from the University of Florida, Levin College of Law, Center on Children and Families where she served as the director of research. Caldwell has a passion for keeping evidence-based practice in the forefront to enrich the laws and policies that affect children and families. Currently, Caldwell serves as the APA staff liaison to the Task Force on Violent Media, charged with conducting a meta-analysis of the current scientific literature, while reviewing the relevance of the 2005 APA policy, Resolution on Violence in Video Games and Interactive Media (PDF, 90KB) to ensure that it is informed by the best science currently available. 

In her spare time Lauren enjoys chauffeuring her daughter (and favorite seventh grader.) To view some of the Children, Youth and Family Office resources, visit their website.  

How did the study of children, youth and families come to be mainstays in your professional career? 

I’ve always been very interested in how people turn out to be such individuals, and what leads one child to thrive in the same conditions or in response to the same stimulus in which another child struggles to attain basic developmental milestones. This interest led me to psychology. When I was an undergraduate psychology major, I signed up to volunteer to work with adolescent girls in residential mental health treatment. The first time I drove to the residential facility after my training, I was shocked to see that it was, in fact, the state prison. Although the girls with whom I was working were not involved in the juvenile justice system, this was the only place the state had for them to receive residential treatment. Week after week of passing through the barbed-wire fence and the heavy metal locked gates to get to the girls’ ward led me to think about the impact on the girls’ outcomes of the system that was supposed to be helping them. I became increasingly interested in systemic effects on child development, and in particular, ways that we might improve the support systems, programs and policies that seek to improve outcomes from children, youth and families, especially those particularly at risk for poor outcomes.  

This desire to work to improve the support systems for children and their families led me to want to better understand the fundamental processes of child development. To truly do the work I wanted to do, I also believed that I needed to understand the legal, regulatory and legislative processes and functions that create and maintain those systems. So, I decided to seek a PhD in developmental psychology and to go to law school. The early passion that drove me throughout my graduate education has evolved through experience gained from a variety of positions. My goals are still the same, but I’ve become increasingly focused on the dissemination of evidence-based information and the translation and implementation processes needed to effectively integrate what we know about child development and the needs of our children and families into what we do to support and empower them. 

What does poverty mean for children?  

The easy answer to this question is that poverty means deprivation for children, but, of course, this is an oversimplification. Poverty affects children in many ways. It impacts them in the moment, and across time. That is, children at every age and developmental stage are impacted by impoverished environments, and those impacts build upon one another and continue across time. 

Children living in poverty experience the daily impacts that come easily to mind — hunger, illness, insecurity, instability — but they also are more likely to experience low academic achievement, obesity, behavioral problems and social and emotional development difficulties (Malhomes, 2012). Increased stress is a known causal factor through which poverty impacts developmental outcomes. Stress can lead to adverse changes in the cardiovascular system, the immune system and the neuroendocrine and cortical systems, which have implications for learning and decision-making (Aber, Morris & Raver, 2012). In addition to the direct effects of poverty-related stress, poverty impacts children’s development indirectly through direct effects on parents. Numerous studies have shown that poverty increased parents’ stress and impairs parenting practices (Conger & Conger, 2002); and that poverty is linked to disruptions in parents’ mental health (McLoyd, 1990).  

Indirect effects of poverty stem from other aspects of children’s ecosystems as well. Family housing resources and stability and neighborhood factors such as levels of danger, enrichment opportunities (parks, libraries, etc.) and reduced social control are closely related to poverty and have been shown to influence child outcomes (Brooks-Gunn, Duncan & Aber, 1997; Sampson, Raudenbush & Earls, 1997). The larger social environment, the media, and laws and policies exert influence as well. When you stack up these layers of influence, you can see the complex and pervasive role poverty can play in children’s development.

Unfortunately, for many children, living in poverty can also mean neglect (Widom & Nikulina, 2012). Research has shown that poverty and neglect each separately predict PTSD, crime and academic achievement (Widom  & Nikulina, 2012). And as we know, risk factors tend to be cumulative, meaning that neglected children living in poverty face increased risk of negative outcomes. 

Moreover, poverty is an environmental adversity that is little affected by the actions of a child. When such an adversity is strong, frequent or extended, children may experience toxic stress; stress that is experienced at such a level as to prolong activation of the bodies’ stress response system, which can disrupt development of brain architecture and physiological systems, and led to impairment of cognitive, social and emotional development (National Scientific Council on the Developing Child, 2005/2014). What’s more, these effects can be cumulative over time, impacting an individual’s physical and mental health throughout adulthood (Shonkoff, 2012). 

What are some of the key life-long effects of children living in poverty? 

First, the effects mentioned above can maintain over time, and can be difficult to change through intervention. Although research has discovered much about the mechanisms through which poverty impacts children’s development, there is still much to learn, and even more to learn about successful implementation of interventions to improve outcomes and reduce both poverty and the effects of poverty. Second, the outcomes children experience at one age can themselves operate as risk factors for additional negative outcomes at later ages. For example, poor emotional and behavioral self-control in early childhood, both related to growing up in poverty, are related to academic disciplinary problems in elementary and middle school-years, which is related to delinquency in adolescence (Aber, Morris & Raver, 2012).  

The health and mental-health effects mentioned above continue to exert influence on children as they mature through childhood into adulthood and live out their lives.  

How does persistent childhood poverty relate to adult outcomes? 

In addition to the ways described above, persistent childhood poverty can greatly reduce opportunities for children when they reach adulthood. Childhood poverty has been linked to academic failure and school dropout (Chapman, Laird, 2011), and to reduced rates of college attendance and graduation (Bailey & Dynarski, 2011). 

Given the importance of education in achieving employment that pays enough to sustain basic needs, this failure to gain basic levels of education and higher education has lifelong implications. Additionally, research shows that poverty is linked to a growing skills gap between the skills needed to obtain jobs that pay a “living wage” and the skills that young adults who have grown up poor have developed (Duncan & Murnane, 2011).


Aber, J.L., Morris, P.A., & Raver, C. (2012). Children, families, and poverty: Definitions, trends, emerging science and implications for policy. Social Policy Report, 26 (3).

Bailey, M.J. & Dynarski, S. M. (2011). Inequality in post-secondary education. In G. Duncan & R. Murnane (Eds.), Whither opportunity: Rising inequality, schools, and children’s life chances (pp. 117-132). New York, NY: Russell Sage Foundation. 

Brooks-Gunn, J., Duncan, G.J. & Aber, J.L. (1997). Neighborhood poverty: Context and consequences for children. (Vol. 1). New Youk, NY: Russell Sage Foundation.

Chapman, C. Laird, J., Ifill, N. & Kewal Amani A. (2011, October). Trends in high school dropout and completion rates in the United States: 1972-2009 (NCES 2012-006). 

Conger, R.G. & Conger, K. J. (2002). Resilience in Mid-western families: Selected findings from the first decade of a prospective longitudinal study. Journal of Marriage and Family, 64, pp. 361-373.

Duncan, G.J. & Murnane, R. J. (2011). Introduction: The American dream then and now.  In G. Duncan & R. Murnane (Eds.), Whither opportunity: Rising inequality, schools, and children’s life chances (pp. 3-23). New York, NY: Russell Sage Foundation.