In this issue

The Environment of Childhood Poverty

Gary Evans (Elizabeth Lee Vincent Professor of Human Ecology, Cornell University) won the 2010 Proshansky-Newman Award

The Newman-Proshansky is the Division’s professional achievement award. When it is bestowed to an environmental psycholo gist, it is called the “Proshansky-Newman award,” and it is the “Newman-Proshan sky award” when conferred to a  population psychologist...The award is named after Sidney H. Newman and Harold M. Proshansky. Sidney Newman was active in an APA Task Force on Psychology, Family Planning and Population Policy established in 1969 that brought population and human reproductive issues to broader attention in American psychology and eventually led to the formation of the Division (Richards, 2000), having edited an influential monograph together with Vaida Thompson in 1976.  Among other positions,  Newman served in the U.S. Public Health Service and in the Center for Population Research at the National Institute of Child Health and   Human  Development (Thompson & David, 1990). Harold M. Proshansky helped give definition to the field of environmental psychology when his Environmental Psychology in the Real World was published in 1976. Proshansky abandoned his earlier laboratory research because he saw the methods rather than the problem as driving the research and sought to pur sue  psychological research on  problems of poverty, prejudice and group conflict (Rivlin  &  Denmark,  1995).  Proshansky became provost and then president of the Graduate School and the University Center of the City University of New York.

Gary distilled the themes of his award presentation at the 2011 APA conference in Washington, DC in the text that follows.

By Gary W. Evans, Elizabeth Lee Vincent Professor of Human Ecology, Cornell University

Across multiple physical and psychological health outcomes, early childhood poverty is associated with multiple, deep, and long-lasting adverse  developmental  outcomes. This talk consists of three primary parts. Part 1 outlines the physical and psy chological health sequelae of early child hood poverty. Both during early childhood as well as later in old age, persons born to lower income or lower  Socioeconomic Status (SES) families are at risk for mortality and a host of chronic diseases including the major sources of morbidity (e.g., coronary heart  disease). Part 2 argues that one principal pathway to understand the  strong,  adverse  impact of  childhood poverty and lower SES on health and well being throughout life is excess exposure to cumulative risk factors. The environment of childhood poverty can be fairly characterized as a plethora of suboptimal living conditions. Among the physical contexts of early development in low income homes are: noise, crowding, poor quality housing, inadequate  neighborhood  settings, lower quality school  and  daycare  settings  and excess exposure to various toxins such as lead. Lower income children are also much more likely to live in a household that is highly chaotic, with fewer routines and less structure. Their families are also much less stable  with greater adult  partner changes, more frequent residential moves, and more variable employment hours of their caregivers. In addition to the physical surroundings, low income children also face more psychosocial demands. Their parents are more likely to divorce, their household often has greater turmoil and conflict, and because their parents also confront many of the same stressors as their children do, unfortunately low income parents tend to be less responsive to their children and less able to monitor them as well. They read to their children less, are less likely to expose them  to  informal  learning  opportunities (e.g., library, museum, music or art instruction) and they are often less able to provide a rich, cognitively stimulating home environment (e.g., books, computers, and age appropriate games and toys).

Part 3 of the talk presents data from a 16 year longitudinal study testing the propostion that:

Poverty  →  Cumulative  Risk  → Child Development

A sample of white, rural children, half below the poverty line and half middle income, have been studied since age 9 until their present age of 22 years. Child development outcomes have been focused on mental health and stress. Cumulative  risk is operationalized as an additive index (0– 6) of noise, crowding, housing problems, family turmoil, child separation from family, and exposure to violence. Risk in each case for the particular wave of data collection is defined as exposure to particular stressor that is in the upper quartile of the distribution. So across the sample of ~ 300 families, those living in a home wherein for a particular wave of data collection the density (people/room) for all 300 families is in the highest quartile receive a density risk score of 1 whereas all others are assigned a score of 0. The sum of the three physical and three psychosocial stressors yields the cumulative risk index for each wave.

Consistent with the child poverty/SES literature, poorer children have elevated basal physiological measures, have more difficulty self-regulating, are vulnerable to helplessness, and manifest more psychological distress. In each case these elevated psychological morbidity symptoms  are mediated to varying degrees by exposure to cumulative risk.

For more information about this perspective on poverty and some data from the longitudinal study, see:

  • Evans (2004). American Psychologist, 59, 77-92
  • Evans et al. (2005). Psychological Science, 16,560-565
  • Evans & Schamberg (2009). Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 106, 6545-6549.