Poverty causes many developmental challenges for infants. Family instability and the lack of proper care are common exposures for infants who live in poverty. This paper argues that increased parental care and positive attachment behaviors are key protective factors that may mediate the impact of these negative effects on infant growth.
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Based on this background, this paper proposes that sensitizing parents about the negative effects of poor parental care is a micro intervention that could mediate the negative developmental challenges of living in poverty. It also proposes that providing income support programs and encouraging mothers to allow their children to participate in social groups are plausible macro and mezzo interventions for mediating the impact of these negative effects on infant growth.
Poverty is a social, economic, and political problem in many societies. Hanson et al. (2013) add that it is a significant public health concern for many emerging and developed economies around the world. More than 15 million children in the United States (US) live in families, or households, that have incomes, which are below the federal poverty line (National Center for Infants, Toddlers, and Families, 2011). The table below shows the current poverty threshold for low-income families of two, three, and four people in America.
Table 1: Federal Poverty Level.
|A family of||Federal Poverty Level||Low income|
The current population of children living below the poverty line in America translates to more than 20% of the child population (Hanson et al., 2013). While these statistics are disturbing, they do not fully capture the effects of poverty on infant development. This is because most statistics rely on outdated assumptions about family expenditures and household resources. In this regard, they do not fully grasp the scope of the effects that poverty has on children.
This paper explores the different issues surrounding this research issue. In detail, it investigates why living in poverty makes infants, who are below two years old, vulnerable and explores the challenges that they may experience when subjected to harsh economic conditions. The findings of this analysis will explain the protective factors that may minimize the effects of living in poverty on infant development. From this background, this paper also proposes different micro, mezzo, and macro interventions that would help to meet the developmental challenges of infant development.
Contrast with Erikson’s Stages of Psychosocial Development
Erikson’s framework of psychosocial development is a useful tool for understanding the effects of poverty on infants. Its different stages include trust vs. mistrust, autonomy vs. shame and doubt, initiative vs. guilt, industry vs. inferiority, identity vs. role confusion, intimacy vs. isolation, generativity vs. stagnation, and ego integrity vs. despair (Cherry, 2015). Trust vs. mistrust is the main developmental issue in this study.
This choice stems from the focus on infants as our demographic target of analysis. In this stage, the type of care they receive influences their behaviors and, depending on the quality of nurturing behavior they see, the infants may mistrust or trust their caregivers and other people in the society. This analysis is at the core of Erikson’s theory of psychosocial development because he says that ego identity is the conscious sense of self (Cherry, 2015).
Similarly, he says ego identity constantly changes, depending on human experiences (Cherry, 2015). At the infancy stage, the ego quality is hope. The developmental task that emerges from this study is social attachment and the maturation of perceptual and motor functions. Infants who do not attain the ego quality (hope), because of poverty, often suffer from withdrawal as the core pathology.
Why Living in Poverty makes Infants Vulnerable
Developmental science has consistently drawn a close association between poverty and developmental challenges among infants (Corcoran & Nichols-Casebolt, 2004). Understanding this statement depends on a person’s comprehension of the factors that make a living in poverty undesirable for infant development. Hanson et al. (2013) say many families living in poverty often experience family instability, which could negatively affect the developmental growth of their children.
Nobilo (2014) adds that early and repeated exposures to stress are some common environmental characteristics of low-income households that predispose infants to a negative environment for growth. Empirical investigations into this issue have pointed out that family turmoil and violence are common issues that make it difficult for parents of infant children to bring up their infant children in the best environment (National Center for Infants, Toddlers, and Families, 2011). Separation from families and poor social support are other characteristics that lead to the same undesirable outcome (Corcoran & Nichols-Casebolt, 2004).
Studies that have investigated this issue further have found out that most parents who expose their infant children to these adverse environmental characteristics also expose them to less cognitive stimulation, compared to their relatively wealthy counterparts (National Center for Infants, Toddlers, and Families, 2011). Magnuson (2013) adds that family members who live in households that are below the poverty line speak less often, and, if they do, they do so in basic ways. Families that live in poverty are also more likely to have smaller playing spaces for their children, compared to middle income or wealthy households (Association for Psychological Science, 2013).
They are also less likely to give their children adequate learning resources compared to middle-income parents. Hanson et al. (2013) say these inadequacies explain part of the reason why children raised in poverty develop behavioral, mental health, and physical health problems in their teenage years and even in their adult lives.
Challenges that most Infants may face when living in Poverty
Many researchers have explored the vulnerabilities experienced by infants living in poverty. For example, according to Nobilo (2014), living in poverty exposes infants to different types of developmental risk factors that would affect different aspects of their lives, such as schooling, health, and behavioral regulation.
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A study by Nobilo (2014) investigated the respiratory sinus arrhythmia (RSA), which is a measure of understanding the adaptability of children to their environment, and found that most infants who were born and lived in poverty exhibited more problematic behaviors than their counterparts who grew up in middle-class or wealthy households, did. Therefore, exposure to harsh economic conditions is bound to have several short-term and long-term effects on the health and development of infants (Conradt, Measelle, & Ablow, 2013).
The Association for Psychological Science (2013) affirms this fact by saying children who live in poverty are likely to live in conditions that could directly affect their physical wellbeing. Indeed, research has proved that these children suffer a high risk of dying early and contracting an infectious disease in such environments (Nobilo, 2014). Similarly, research proves that these children are likely to miss vaccinations that should help to improve their health outcomes (Conradt et al., 2013). This problem explains why this group of children often suffers from high rates of asthma and anemia (Conradt et al., 2013). Collectively, these factors explain the challenges infants may face when living in poverty.
Protective Factors that may mediate the Challenges
According to Magnuson (2013), the ability of infants to adapt and regulate the adversities of their environment is critical to their success in mitigating the negative effects of living in poverty. Parenting skills that emphasize on positive attachment behaviors and the cultivation of nurturing behaviors emerge as the most common protective factors for infants born and living in poverty (Hanson et al., 2013).
According to Nobilo (2014), infants who experience positive attachment to family members develop a strong capability of coping with stress. Relative to this assertion, Magnuson (2013) says, “A stimulating and enriching environment where young children are read to, spoken to more often and exposed to new vocabulary will buffer the harmful impact of poverty” (p. 3). Interventions that strive to improve parenting skills during infant growth are also bound to improve the outcomes of infants who grow up in poverty (Hanson et al., 2013). Some researchers have also argued that the presence of a concerned caregiver could also be a protective factor to mediate the challenges arising from infants living in poverty (Hanson et al., 2013).
Micro, Mezzo, and Macro Interventions that would help the Population overcome Developmental Challenges
Magnuson (2013) defines micro interventions as the most common form of intervention, in public health, that targets families or affected persons. Introducing early childhood education programs to sensitize parents about the need for creating the right environment for their infants to live in would be a positive step towards minimizing the negative effects of poverty on infant development (National center for Infants, Toddlers and Families, 2011).
Such programs may involve door-to-door campaigns where health workers meet parents in their homes and educate them about the issue. Alternatively, the campaign could be through mass media channels, such as television and radios. Such outlets should target an audience that would understand the economic challenges highlighted in this paper. Through such programs, health workers could emphasize the need for maintaining stability in the house, or family, and highlight the need to develop close bonds with family members to provide a strong social network for infants to grow. The main purpose of introducing such an intervention is to sensitize parents about the possible negative effects of their behaviors on the developmental process of their children.
Macro interventions refer to health programs that affect entire communities, or larger systems of care. To alleviate some of the developmental challenges that affect infants who are born in poverty, a plausible macro intervention would be to introduce income support programs for new mothers. A research study that investigated the potential of using income support to improve infant developmental outcomes affirmed the success of this intervention (Corcoran & Nichols-Casebolt, 2004).
Three researchers (Pamela Morris, Greg Duncan, and Christopher Rodrigues) affirm this fact because they assessed the developmental outcomes of two groups of newly born mothers (Corcoran & Nichols-Casebolt, 2004). The first group comprised of mothers who were part of a welfare-to-work program, but without a significant improvement in their earnings. A different set of mothers was part of an income support program that strived to improve their overall earnings. The latter group of mothers reported better developmental outcomes of their infants, compared to the first group of mothers who never experienced any income change (Corcoran & Nichols-Casebolt, 2004).
This outcome proves that the intervention could succeed if communities start income support programs for mothers who have newly born children (Corcoran & Nichols-Casebolt, 2004).
Mezzo interventions are those that involve intermediate groups, such as churches, schools, and higher institutions of education. Encouraging mothers to enroll their children in social support networks is one mezzo intervention that would help to address some of the developmental challenges highlighted in this paper. This recommendation stems from the work of Nobilo (2014) who says a strong social network is bound to reduce cases of welfare dependency. Nonetheless, the presence of alternative caregivers and supportive people could also build a strong social system that would mitigate some of the adverse effects of poverty on infant development (Corcoran & Nichols-Casebolt, 2004).
Nonetheless, the National center for Infants, Toddlers and Families (2011) says that formal support systems, which receive the backing of community members, are most likely to have the greatest desirable effects on infant development. Particularly, research studies have drawn a link between them, a higher education status, and positive health outcomes (Corcoran & Nichols-Casebolt, 2004). Increasing community programs should also increase the number of parents who participate in educational programs for promoting positive infant health. Such an initiative would increase then network of support available to parents and infants alike.
This paper has shown that poverty causes many developmental problems for infants. Family instability and the lack of proper care are common products of harsh economic conditions, which lead to the developmental challenges highlighted in this paper. The process of mitigating the effects of these adverse conditions stems from the commitment by parents and health agencies to adopt the above-mentioned micro, mezzo, and macro interventions that strive to improve social support and provide extra care to infants. The commitment to do so would lead to the realization of hope, which is the relevant ego quality for infants (according to Erikson’s framework of psychosocial development).
Association for Psychological Science. (2013). Infants in poverty show different physiological vulnerabilities to the care-giving environment. Web.
Cherry, K. (2015). Erik Erikson’s Stages of Psychosocial Development. Web.
Conradt, E., Measelle, J., & Ablow, C. (2013). Poverty, Problem Behavior, and Promise: Differential Susceptibility among Infants Reared in Poverty. Psychological Science, 24(1), 235-242. Web.
Corcoran, J., & Nichols-Casebolt, A. (2004). Risk and Resilience Ecological Framework for Assessment and Goal Formulation. Child and Adolescent Social Work Journal, 21(3), 211-235.
Hanson, J., Hair, N., Shen, D., Shi, F., Gilmore, J., & Wolfe, B. (2013). Family Poverty Affects the Rate of Human Infant Brain Growth. PLoS ONE, 8(12), 809-854. Web.
Magnuson, K. (2013). Reducing the effects of poverty through early childhood interventions. Fast Focus, 2(17), 1-6.
National center for Infants, Toddlers and Families. (2011). Poverty Fact Sheet: Implications for Infants and Toddlers. Web.
Nobilo, H. (2014). The Experience of Poverty for Infants and Young Children. Web.