Childhood Poverty, Cumulative Risk Exposure, and Mental Health in Emerging Adults

Clin Psychol Sci. 2014 May;2(3):287-296. doi: 10.1177/2167702613501496. Epub 2013 Oct 1.


One out of four American children are born into poverty, but little is known about the long-term, mental health implications of early deprivation. The more time in poverty from birth-age-9, the worse mental health as emerging adults (n = 196, M = 17.30 years, 53% male). These results maintain independently of concurrent, adult income levels for self-reported externalizing symptoms and a standard learned helplessness behavioral protocol, but internalizing symptoms were unaffected by childhood poverty. We then demonstrate that part of the reason why early poverty exposure is harmful to mental health among emerging adults is because of elevated cumulative risk exposure assessed at age 13. The significant, prospective, longitudinal relations between early childhood poverty and externalizing symptoms plus learned helplessness behavior are mediated, in part, by exposure to a confluence of psychosocial (violence, family turmoil, child separation from family) and physical (noise, crowding, substandard housing) risk factors during adolescence.