Relationships between poverty and psychopathology: a natural experiment

JAMA. 2003 Oct 15;290(15):2023-9. doi: 10.1001/jama.290.15.2023.


Context: Social causation (adversity and stress) vs social selection (downward mobility from familial liability to mental illness) are competing theories about the origins of mental illness.

Objective: To test the role of social selection vs social causation of childhood psychopathology using a natural experiment.

Design: Quasi-experimental, longitudinal study.

Population and setting: A representative population sample of 1420 rural children aged 9 to 13 years at intake were given annual psychiatric assessments for 8 years (1993-2000). One quarter of the sample were American Indian, and the remaining were predominantly white. Halfway through the study, a casino opening on the Indian reservation gave every American Indian an income supplement that increased annually. This increase moved 14% of study families out of poverty, while 53% remained poor, and 32% were never poor. Incomes of non-Indian families were unaffected.

Main outcome measures: Levels of Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fourth Edition, psychiatric symptoms in the never-poor, persistently poor, and ex-poor children were compared for the 4 years before and after the casino opened.

Results: Before the casino opened, the persistently poor and ex-poor children had more psychiatric symptoms (4.38 and 4.28, respectively) than the never-poor children (2.75), but after the opening levels among the ex-poor fell to those of the never-poor children, while levels among those who were persistently poor remained high (odds ratio, 1.50; 95% confidence interval, 1.08-2.09; and odds ratio, 0.91; 95% confidence interval, 0.77-1.07, respectively). The effect was specific to symptoms of conduct and oppositional defiant disorders. Anxiety and depression symptoms were unaffected. Similar results were found in non-Indian children whose families moved out of poverty during the same period.

Conclusions: An income intervention that moved families out of poverty for reasons that cannot be ascribed to family characteristics had a major effect on some types of children's psychiatric disorders, but not on others. Results support a social causation explanation for conduct and oppositional disorder, but not for anxiety or depression.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Anxiety
  • Black or African American
  • Child
  • Child Behavior Disorders / epidemiology
  • Conduct Disorder / epidemiology
  • Depression / epidemiology
  • Humans
  • Indians, North American
  • Longitudinal Studies
  • Mental Disorders / epidemiology*
  • North Carolina / epidemiology
  • Poverty*
  • Psychopathology
  • Rural Population
  • Socioeconomic Factors
  • Stress, Psychological
  • White People