Even small rise in family income helps young children from poor families

November 19, 2001

A small amount of money can make a big difference for young children from poor families, increasing their social skills and readiness for school to levels seen in children from middle-class families, according to a new study.

"Gains in family economic resources ... are likely to improve the cognitive and social functioning of very young children living in poverty," says lead author Eric Dearing, Ph.D., of the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

"From these findings, we know that naturally occurring decreases in family income-to-needs were associated with worse developmental outcomes for children from poor families," he says. Even modest increases in family economic resources led to improved performance by children even as young as 3.

Nearly 17 percent of children in the United States live in poverty, placing them at increased risk for developmental delays and school problems. The association between poverty and slower development is well known, but this study is the first to examine changes in economic resources within families as opposed to measuring the difference between families.

The study is published in the November/December issue of Child Development.

Using a statistical measure called "income-to-need" that compares a family's income to the poverty level for a family its size, the researchers found a correlation with developmental measures such as cognitive development, language abilities and social behavior in children from birth to age 3.

A small increase in income-to-needs resulted in improvements in cognitive, language and social skills with more profound effects among the children from poor families, the study finds. Improvements in children from middle-class families with income-to-needs increases were not statiscally significant.

"Change in family income-to-needs mattered more for children with less," the authors explain. But they were surprised to find that children in poor families who benefited from increased income scored about the same as children who were not poor to begin with.

For a family of four below the poverty level who needs remained constant, an increase in income of approximately $13,400 over three years resulted in the children scoring as well as children in families with twice the income. "Thus, a positive change in income-to-needs was a powerful protective factor for children from poor families," they conclude.

Data on 1,216 families collected as part of the National Institute on Child Health and Human Development Study of Early Child Care were used in this study.
The study was funded by a grant from the National Institute on Child Health and Human Development.

Child Development is the bimonthly peer-reviewed journal of the Society for Research in Child Development. For information about the journal, contact Jonathan J. Aiken at 734-998-7310.

Posted by the Center for the Advancement of Health http://www.cfah.org. For more research news and information, go to our special section devoted to health and behavior in the "Peer-Reviewed Journals" area of Eurekalert!, http://www.eurekalert.org/jrnls/cfah/ For information about the Center, call Ira Allen, iallen@cfah.org, 202-387-2829.

Center for Advancing Health

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