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Poverty and child welfare

Information about poverty, its effects on children and families, and the role it plays in child welfare involvement.

Effects of poverty on children

Poverty can negatively impact child health, child well-being, and child development in the following ways: 

  • Chronic or prolonged stress, such as the stress experienced by those who live in extreme poverty, can negatively impact early brain development, potentially resulting in cognitive impairment and other long-term consequences for children. This effect is sometimes referred to as toxic stress. The effects of stress and other social conditions of poverty also can increase the risk of children developing mental health issues and behavioural problems. For this reason, poverty has been described by some researchers as an adverse childhood experience (ACE)
  • There is evidence that children living in poverty experience worse health outcomes; child poverty also contributes to poor health outcomes during adulthood. In general, poverty is widely understood to be a risk factor for many health conditions, so much so that physicians are now encouraged to screen patients for poverty in order to better respond to health concerns
  • Children who live in poverty typically have low levels of access to health care services and other social supports which are critical for promoting good health and managing and treating health conditions. Children from low-income families also have less financial resources to draw upon in times of need and crisis
  • Children living in food insecure households and communities may suffer from inadequate nutrition which can contribute to physical health problems (e.g. diabetes, obesity) as well as mental health issues. During the early years, malnutrition can result in failure to thrive and developmental problems
  • Poverty is associated with lower levels of academic achievement and educational attainment for children. This is because the experience of poverty poses many challenges for children. For example, children from low-income families may not be able to concentrate because of hunger or may be victimized by bullies

Spotlight on toxic stress and child development

Links and resources