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Economy, Education, Healthcare, Science, Social Issues

Children, Youth, Families and Socioeconomic Status

Socioeconomic status (SES) encompasses not just income but also educational attainment, occupational prestige, and subjective perceptions of social status and social class. Socioeconomic status can encompass quality of life attributes as well as the opportunities and privileges afforded to people within society. Poverty, specifically, is not a single factor but rather is characterized by multiple physical and psychosocial stressors. Further, SES is a consistent and reliable predictor of a vast array of outcomes across the life span, including physical and psychological health. Thus, SES is relevant to all realms of behavioral and social science, including research, practice, education and advocacy.

SES Affects Our Society

SES affects overall human functioning, including our physical and mental health. Low SES and its correlates, such as lower educational achievement, poverty and poor health, ultimately affect our society. Inequities in health distribution, resource distribution, and quality of life are increasing in the United States and globally. Society benefits from an increased focus on the foundations of socioeconomic inequities and efforts to reduce the deep gaps in socioeconomic status in the United States and abroad.

SES Impacts the Lives of Children, Youth and Families

Research indicates that SES is a key factor influencing quality of life, across the life span, for children, youth and families (CYF).

Psychological Health

Increasing evidence supports the link between lower SES and negative psychological health outcomes, while more positive psychological outcomes such as optimism, self-esteem and perceived control have been linked to higher levels of SES for youth.

Lower levels of SES are associated with the following:

  • Higher levels of emotional and behavioral difficulties, including social problems, delinquent behavior symptoms and attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder among adolescents (DeCarlo Santiago, Wadsworth, & Stump, 2011; Russell, Ford, Williams, & Russell, 2016; Spencer, Kohn, & Woods, 2002).
  • Higher rates of depression, anxiety, attempted suicide, cigarette dependence, illicit drug use and episodic heavy drinking among adolescents (Newacheck, Hung, Park, Brindis, & Irwin, 2003).
  • Higher levels of aggression (Molnar, Cerda, Roberts, & Buka, 2008), hostility, perceived threat, and discrimination for youth (Chen & Paterson, 2006).
  • Higher incidence of Alzheimer’s disease later in life (Evans et al., 1997; Fratiglioni & Roca, 2001; Fratiglioni, Winblad, & von Strauss, 2007; Karp et al., 2004). However, socioeconomic disparities in cell aging are evident in early life, long before the onset of age-related diseases (Needham, Fernández, Lin, Epel, & Blackburn, 2012).
  • Elevated rates of morbidity and mortality from chronic diseases later in life (Miller, Chen, & Parker, 2011).
Physical Health

Research continues to link lower SES to a variety of negative health outcomes at birth and throughout the lifespan.

Lower levels of SES are associated with the following:

  • Higher infant mortality. In the United States, babies born to White mothers have an expected mortality rate of 5.35 per 1,000 births. In comparison, babies born to black mothers had a mortality rate of 12.35 per 1,000 births (Haider, 2014).
  • Higher likelihood of being sedentary (Newacheck et al., 2003) and higher body mass index for adolescents (Chen & Paterson, 2006), possibly because of a lack of neighborhood resources—such as playgrounds and accessible healthy food options.
  • Higher levels of obesity. U.S. counties with poverty rates of less than 35 percent had obesity rates 145 percent greater than wealthy counties (Levine, 2011).
  • Higher physiological markers of chronic stressful experiences for adolescents (Chen & Paterson, 2006).
  • Higher rates of cardiovascular disease for adults (Colhoun, Hemingway, & Poulter, 1998; Kaplan & Keil, 1993; Steptoe & Marmot, 2004).

Increasing evidence supports the link between SES and educational outcomes.

  • Low SES and exposure to adversity are linked to decreased educational success (Sheridan & McLaughlin, 2016). Early experiences and environmental influences can have a lasting impact on learning (linguistic, cognitive and socioemotional skills), behavior and health (Shonkoff & Garner, 2012).
  • Children from low-SES families often begin kindergarten with significantly less linguistic knowledge (Purcell-Gates, McIntyre, & Freppon, 1995). As such, children from low-income families enter high school with average literacy skills five years behind those of high-income students (Reardon, Valentino, & Shores, 2013).
  • Children from less-advantaged homes score at least ten percent lower than the national average on national achievement scores in mathematics and reading (Hochschild, 2003).
  • Children in impoverished settings are much more likely to be absent from school throughout their educational experiences (Zhang, 2003), further increasing the learning gap between them and their wealthier peers.
  • While national high school dropout rates have steadily declined, dropout rates for children living in poverty have steadily increased. Low-income students fail to graduate at five times the rate of middle-income families and six times that of higher income youth (National Center for Education Statistics, 2016).
Family Well-Being

Evidence indicates that socioeconomic status affects family stability, including parenting practices and developmental outcomes for children (Trickett, Aber, Carlson, & Cicchetti, 1991).

  • Resilience is optimized when protective factors are strengthened at all socioecological levels, including individual, family and community levels (Benzies & Mychasiuk, 2009).
  • Poverty is a reliable predictor of child abuse and neglect. Among low-income families, those with family exposure to substance use exhibit the highest rates of child abuse and neglect (Ondersma, 2002).
  • Lower SES has been linked to domestic crowding, a condition that has negative consequences for adults and children, including higher psychological stress and poor health outcomes (Melki, Beydoun, Khogali, Tamim, & Yunis, 2004).
  • Seven in 10 children living with a single mother are low income, compared to less than a third (32 percent) of children living in other types of family structures (Shriberg, 2013).
  • All family members living in poverty are more likely to be victims of violence. Racial and ethnic minorities who are also of lower SES are at an increased risk of victimization (Pearlman, Zierler, Gjelsvik, & Verhoek-Oftedahl, 2004).
  • Maintaining a strong parent–child bond helps promote healthy child development, particularly for children of low SES (Milteer, Ginsburg, & Mulligan, 2012).
Get Involved


Benzies, K., & Mychasiuk, R. (2009). Fostering family resiliency: A review of the key protective factors. Child and Family Social Work, 14, 103-114. doi:10.1111/j.1365-2206.2008.00586.x

Chen, E., & Paterson, L. Q. (2006). Neighborhood, family, and subjective socioeconomic status: How do they relate to adolescent health? Health Psychology, 25, 704-714. doi:10.1037/0278-6133.25.6.704

Colhoun, H. M., Hemingway, H., & Poulter, N. R. (1998). Socio-economic status and blood pressure: An overview analysis. Journal of Human Hypertension, 12, 91–110. doi:10.1038/sj.jhh.1000558

DeCarlo Santiago, C., Wadsworth, M. E., & Stump, J. (2011). Socioeconomic status, neighborhood disadvantage, and poverty-related stress: Prospective effects on psychological syndromes among diverse low-income families. Journal of Economic Psychology, 32, 218-230. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.joep.2009.10.008

Evans, D. A., Hebert, L. E., Beckett, L. A., Scherr, P. A., Albert, M. S., Chown, M. J., & Taylor, J. O. (1997). Education and other measures of socioeconomic status and risk of incident Alzheimer disease in a defined population of older persons. Archives of Neurology, 54, 1399-1405. doi:10.1001/archneur.1997.00550230066019

Fratiglioni, L., & Rocca, W. A. (2001). Epidemiology of dementia. In F. Boller, & S. F. Cappa (Eds.), Handbook of neuropsychology (2nd ed., pp. 193-215). Amsterdam, the Netherlands: Elsevier.

Fratiglioni, L., Winblad, B., & von Strauss, E. (2007). Prevention of Alzheimer’s disease and dementia: Major findings from the Kungsholmen Project. Physiology & Behavior, 92, 98-104. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.physbeh.2007.05.059

Haider, S. J. (2014). Racial and ethnic infant mortality gaps and socioeconomic status. Focus, 31, 18-20. Retrieved from http://www.irp.wisc.edu/publications/focus.htm

Hochschild, J. L. (2003). Social class in public schools. Journal of Social Issues, 59, 821-840.

Kaplan, G. A., & Keil, J. E. (1993). Socioeconomic factors and cardiovascular disease: A review of the literature. Circulation, 88, 1973-1998. doi:10.1161/01.CIR.88.4.1973

Karp, A., Kåreholt, I., Qiu, C., Bellander, T., Winblad, B., & Fratiglioni, L. (2004). Relation of education and occupation-based socioeconomic status to incident Alzheimer’s disease. American Journal of Epidemiology, 159, 175-183.

Levine, J. A. (2011). Poverty and obesity in the U.S. Diabetes, 60, 2667-2668. doi:10.2337/db11-1118

Melki, I. S., Beydoun, H. A., Khogali, M., Tamim, H., & Yunis, K. A. (2004). Household crowding index: A correlate of socioeconomic status and interpregnancy spacing in an urban setting. Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, 58, 476-480. http://dx.doi.org/10.1136/jech.2003.012690

Miller, G. E., Chen, E., & Parker, K. J. (2011). Psychological stress in childhood and susceptibility to the chronic diseases of aging: Moving toward a model of behavioral and biological mechanisms. Psychological Bulletin, 137, 959-997. doi:10.1037/a0024768.

Milteer, R. M., Ginsburg, K. R., & Mulligan, D. A. (2012). The importance of play in promoting healthy child development and maintaining strong parent-child bond: Focus on children in poverty. Pediatrics, 129(1), e204-e213. doi:10.1542/peds.2011-2953

Molnar, B. E., Cerda, M., Roberts, A. L., & Buka, S. L. (2008). Effects of neighborhood resources on aggressive and delinquent behaviors among urban youths. American Journal of Public Health, 98, 1086-1093. doi:10.2105/AJPH.2006.098913

National Center for Education Statistics. (2002). Education Longitudinal Study of 2002. Retrieved from http://nces.ed.gov/surveys/els2002/bibliography.asp

Needham, B. L., Fernández, J. R., Lin, J., Epel, E. S., & Blackburn, E. H. (2012). Socioeconomic status and cell aging in children. Social Science and Medicine, 74, 1948-1951. doi:10.1016/j.socscimed.2012.02.019

Newacheck, P. W., Hung, Y. Y., Park, M. J., Brindis, C. D., & Irwin, C. E. (2003). Disparities in adolescent health and health care: Does socioeconomic status matter? Health Services Research, 38, 1235-1252. doi:10.1111/1475-6773.00174

Ondersma, S. J. (2002). Predictors of neglect within low-SES families: The importance of substance abuse. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 72, 383-391. doi:10.1037/0002-9432.72.3.383

Pearlman, D. N., Zierler, S., Gjelsvik, A., & Verhoek-Oftedahl, W. (2004). Neighborhood environment, racial position, and risk of police-reported domestic violence: A contextual analysis. Public Health Reports, 118, 44-58. doi:10.1093/phr/118.1.44

Purcell-Gates, V., McIntyre, E., & Freppon, P. A. (1995). Learning written storybook language in school: A comparison of low-SES children in skills-based and whole language classrooms. American Educational Research Journal, 32, 659-685. doi:10.3102/00028312032003659

Reardon, S. F., Valentino, R. A., & Shores, K. A. (2013). Patterns of literacy among U.S. students. The Future of Children, 23(2), 17-37.

Russell, A. E., Ford, T., Williams, R., & Russell, G. (2016). The association between socioeconomic disadvantage and attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD): A systematic review. Child Psychiatry and Human Development, 47, 440-458. doi:10.1007/s10578-015-0578-3

Sheridan, M. A., & McLaughlin, K. A. (2016). Neurological models of the impact of adversity on education. Current Opinion in Behavioral Sciences, 10, 108-113. doi:10.1016/j.cobeha.2016.05.013

Shonkoff, J. P. & Garner, A. S. (2012). The lifelong effects of childhood adversity and toxic stress. American Academy of Pediatrics, 129, e232-e246. doi:10.1542/peds.2011-2663

Shriberg, D. (2013). School psychology and social justice: Conceptual foundations and tools for practice. New York, NY: Routledge.

Spencer, M. S., Kohn L. P., & Woods J. R. (2002). Labeling vs. early identification: The dilemma of mental health services under-utilization among low-income African American children. African American Perspectives, 8, 1–14.

Steptoe, A., & Marmot, M. (2004). Socioeconomic status and coronary heart disease: A psychobiological perspective. In L. J. Waite (Ed.), Aging, health and public policy: Demographic and economic perspectives (pp. 133-152. New York, NY: Population Council.

Trickett, P. K., Aber, J. L., Carlson, V., & Cicchetti, D. (1991). Relationship of socioeconomic status to the etiology and developmental sequelae of physical child abuse. Developmental Psychology, 27, 148-158. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/0012-1649.27.1.148

Zhang, M. (2003). Links between school absenteeism and child poverty. Pastoral Care in Education, 21, 10-17. doi:10.1111/1468-0122.00249

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