A small amount of money can make a big difference for young children from poor families by increasing their social skills and readiness for school to levels seen in children from middle-class families, according to a new study by researchers at the Graduate School of Education (GSE) and Baylor University.
While the association between poverty and slower development is well known, the study, “Change in Family Income-to-Needs Matters More for Children With Less,” published in the November/December issue of Child Development, is the first to examine changes in economic resources within families as opposed to measuring the difference between families.
Findings indicate that for a family of four below the poverty level whose needs remained constant, an increase in family income of approximately $13,400 over three years resulted in the children scoring as well as children in families with twice the income. Even modest increases in family economic resources led to improved performance by children as young as 3 on tasks such as identifying colors, letters, and shapes. These children also were more likely to understand and produce a larger number of words and phrases.
“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, a postdoctoral fellow at GSE.
“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,” says Dearing, who co-authored the study with Kathleen McCartney, a professor at GSE, and Beck Taylor, an economist at Baylor University.
“Nearly 17 percent of children in the United States live in poverty, placing them at increased risk for developmental delays and school problems. These data suggest that programs leading to redistributions of wealth will improve children’s school readiness scores and social skills,” McCartney says.
Using a measure called “income-to-needs” 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.
“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.
“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.