Effects of Poverty on Behavior and Academic Performance

The effects of poverty on behavior and academic performance can be insidious and devastating. - Photo Credit: Wikipedia

People have long argued that the way out of poverty is to provide the poor with the economic means to overcome their situation. However, this solution is rooted on a very simplistic view of a problem with multiple complex causes. Poverty places people at a disadvantage that is not only environmental, but also physical and psychological. It affects people's health, how they interact with each other and how they react to external stimuli. It even affects how and why they prioritize certain things, and their academic performance. These factors contribute to the perpetuation of the cycle of poverty in individuals, families, communities and countries. Hence why, money can only have long-term effects in poverty alleviation if policymakers tackle the socioeconomic, physical and psychological components of this issue in tandem.

In recent decades, wealth and income inequality between the rich and poor has exacerbated. Among other things, this viciously limits the opportunities available to certain sectors of the population; thus increasing social disparities and tension between groups. As Sawhill (2003) points out, "not only does behavior matter, it matters more than it used to". However, what this author fails to point out is that behavior is not entirely a result of an individual's own will; and therefore, it cannot be fully corrected by reinforcing "tough love" policies. The effects of poverty on behavior and academic performance, etc. go beyond an attitude problem. Let's see how.


According to the Chicago Policy Review; "the effects of low socioeconomic status will persist long into adulthood even if their financial situation improves". In fact, there is a direct relation between the time a child spends in poverty between birth and age nine, and the negative impact poverty exerts in their physical and mental health in their teenage and early adult years.

The effects of poverty on behavior and academic performance often entail a "learned helplessness" behavior because poor children think tey are not in control of their live - Photo Credit: Kingdom Solutions

Children who grow up poor are more prone to externalizing disorders. This is caused by disruptions in the emotion regulatory system, due to the chronic and acute stressors typical in situations of poverty. Therefore, poor children are at a higher risk of exhibiting behavior issues, conduct disorders and ADHD. Poor children also show higher levels of anxiety and depression, a feature they share with adults in the same circumstances.

Furthermore, childhood poverty contributes to the development of "learned helplessness" behaviors. As a consequence, children think they have no control over their circumstances; a behavior their well-off peers do not show. Evans and Cassells, authors of "Childhood Poverty, Cumulative Risk Exposure, and Mental Health in Emerging Adults", believe this has environmental roots. Poor children typically live in the midst of chaos. They witness and experience more violence, housing problems and family turmoil than non-poor children. According to Evans and Cassells, "helplessness is conditioned by continued exposure to uncontrollable, unpredictable stimuli".



Photo Credit: Wikipedia


Environmental, psychological and physical factors hugely influence the academic career of poor children. "Children raised in poverty (...) are faced daily with overwhelming challenges that affluent children never have to confront; and their brains have adapted to sub-optimal conditions in ways that undermine good school performance" (Jensen, W/D). These are children who have to endure:

  • Emotional and social challenges.
  • Acute and chronic stressors.
  • Cognitive lags.
  • Health and safety issues.

All of these factors make it extremely hard for a child growing in poverty to achieve academic and social success. That is not to say that "success in school or life is impossible". It does mean, however, that educators and parents must take specific actions to help their less-advantage students fulfill their potential.

For a child born and raised in poverty, the challenges start in the womb.

Jensen notes that factors such as quality of prenatal care and exposure to toxins significantly impact the child's development. Once born, the children are often part of a family with a high prevalence of teen motherhood; and mental and physical health issues, all of which diminish sensitivity towards the infant.

Photo Credit: Wikipedia

Toddlers need consistent human contact for optimal brain development. A household with the characteristics cited above more often than not provides unreliable emotional relationships. Therefore, the child grows without the proper core guidance to build lifelong social skills. This maims the development of healthy relationships with teachers or peers and the regulation of emotions.

Low-income parents are less prone to know the whereabouts of their children, and they often don't know the names of their teachers or classmates. They also leave their children home to fend for themselves while they work long hours. As a result of being overworked and tired, poor parents usually spend less time playing outside with their children and more time watching TV.

In short, poverty hinders the parents’ ability to build a trusting environment for their children. This, in turn, gives way to the learned helpless behavior we mentioned above.

Moreover, poor children often lack personalized enrichment activities. The financial instability of their family limits their access to books, toys, and music and sport programs; as well as other activities that could further promote their cognitive development. Also, in many poor households parental education is substandard. Therefore, children lack the help they need to keep up with their classes.


The destitute experience significantly greater chronic stress than their non-poor counterparts. This kind of stress has negative impact on children's physical, psychological, emotional and cognitive functioning. It affects brain development, academic success and social competence.

Stressors such as substandard living conditions, unsafe neighborhoods, community or domestic violence and financial strain are common among the poor. They have a devastating cumulative effect which eventually shrinks neurons in the prefrontal cortex; an area of the brain responsible for making judgements, planning and regulating impulsivity. In fact, the chronic stress related to poverty can reduce the "cognitive bandwidth" of a person by the equivalent of 13 IQ points.

Finally, limited access to health care increases school absences, which is detrimental for the children's academic progress. Malnutrition and poor sleeping patterns are also aiding factors, as they can cause mental illness and poor conduct.

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