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Socioeconomic Status

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Socioeconomic Status and Child Development

Socioeconomic status (SES) is one of the most widely studied constructs in the social sciences. Several ways of measuring SES have been proposed, but most include some quantification of family income, parental education, and occupational status. Research shows that SES is associated with a wide variety of health, cognitive, and socioemotional outcomes in children, with effects beginning prior to birth and continuing into adulthood. A variety of mechanisms linking SES to child well-being have been proposed, with most involving differences in access to material and social resources. For children, SES impacts well-being at multiple levels.

One possible relationship between child development and SES, is that high SES families can afford their children an array of services, goods, and social connections that potentially benefit them. There is a concern that many low SES children lack access to those same resources and experiences, thus putting them at risk for developmental problems (Brooks-Gunn & Duncan 1997).

Another relationship that exists between child development and SES is the availability of good health care. Children of low-SES are more likely to be born prematurely, at low birth weight, with birth defects, or disabilities. (Crooks 1995, Hawley & Disney 1992, US Dep. Health & Human services 2000). Early health problems often originate from poor prenatal care, maternal substance abuse, poor nutrition during pregnancy, and maternal lifestyles that increase the likelihood of infections (e.g. smoking, drug use) (US Dep. Health & Human Services 2000).

Low SES is associated with an increased likelihood of high blood lead levels, iron deficiencies, and sensory impairment (Starfield 1989, Wilson 1993). These outcomes likely reflect an array of conditions associated with low SES, including inadequate nutrition, exposure to tobacco smoke, failure to get recommended immunizations, and inadequate access to health care (US Dep. Health & Human Services 2000). The impact of low SES also depends on child's age when the family is struggling financially (Duncan & Brooks-Gunn 1997).

When low-SES children experience health problems, the consequences are often severe. Low-SES children born preterm are far more likely to suffer health and developmental problems than those born full term (Parker 1988). Children from low-income families are two to three times more likely to suffer complications from injuries and infections at every age (US Dep. Health & Human Services). The average length of stay for low-income children in acute care hospitals is longer than for the average children (Bradley & Kelleher 1992). Equally important is that early health problems may have long-term consequences. For example, premature children who live in poverty for the first three years of life manifested more problems in growth, health status, intelligence, and behavior (Bradley & Kelleher 1992). Children with high blood lead levels are at an increased risk of long-term neurological problems (McGauhey 1991). Goodman (1999) found that SES was also related to depression and obesity.

For over 70 years, findings on the relationship between SES and intellectual/ academic aptitude has accumulated. McCall (1981) presented evidence that the association between SES and cognitive performance begins in infancy. Numerous studies have documented that poverty and low parental education are associated with lower levels of school achievement and IQ later in childhood (Duncan & Kelleher 1992).

Mercy & Steelman (1982) found that each SES measure used in the Health Examination Survey (family income, maternal education, paternal education) predicted intellectual attainment, with education being the best predictor. Maternal education was a stronger predictor that paternal education. Studies also indicate that income, education and occupation are associated with better parenting, which in turn, affects school achievement via skill-building activities and school behavior.

Research indicates a connection between cognitive development and parental occupation. Mothers who worked in occupations with a variety of tasks and problem solving opportunities provided more warmth and support and a greater number of stimulating materials. Their children manifested more advanced verbal competence. Such findings are consistent with the classic argument of Kohn & Schooler (1982): "What parents experience at work, they incorporate into their styles of parenting."

SES also appears to affect school attendance and number of years of schooling completed (Brooks-Gunn & Duncan 1997). The impact on years completed appears to be less than the impact on school achievement. Even so, SES remains one of the most consistent predictors of early high school dropout, with evidence suggesting that it is connected both to low parental expectations and early initiation of sexual activity.

There is substantial evidence that low-SES children are more likely to manifest symptoms of psychiatric disturbance and maladaptive social functioning than children from more affluent circumstances (Brooks-Gunn & Duncan 1997). Among adolescents, low SES is often associated with poor adaptive functioning, an increased likelihood of depression, and delinquent behavior (McLoyd 1997). The strength of the relationship between poverty and mental disorders varies by type of disorder and race (McLoyd 1997). The relationship is most consistent with schizophrenia and personality disorders, and reasonably consistent with mild depression. Among children 6-17 years old referred to a psychiatric clinic, SES was associated with parent and teacher reports of aggressiveness and delinquency (McLoyd 1997).

Higher rates of substance abuse have been reported for low-SES teens, but findings are inconsistent. The relation is often mediated through friends' use of substances, academic competence, and parental supportiveness. It is also connected with the experience of negative life events (US Dep. Health & Human Services 2000).

There are two leading theories, social causation and social selection/drift, help to identify the relationship between SES and socioemotional adjustment. The social causation explanation holds that mental disorders result from poverty and its cofactors; the social selection explanation holds that those with mental disorders gradually drift into lower SES strata. In overview, there is substantial evidence linking low SES to less optimal outcomes in nearly every area of functioning. For low-SES children, it is difficult to predict whether a particular health, cognitive, or emotional problem may eventually emerge. However it is somewhat easier to predict that low-SES children are likely to experience more developmental



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