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Arnold School of Public Health

Children living in poverty miss out on caregiving activities critical to development

August 26, 2022 | Erin Bluvas,

Researchers from the Rural and Minority Health Research Center and the South Carolina SmartState Center for Healthcare Quality have completed a nationwide study examining the relationship between income levels and interactive caregiving (i.e., activities that are engaging, responsive and supportive) for young children. They published their findings in the Journal of Child and Family Studies.

“Neurobiological research examining the effects of stress on child development has demonstrated that interactive caregiving practices can be protective for the development of the brain in early childhood,” says Elizabeth Crouch, an assistant professor in the Arnold School’s Department of Health Services Policy and Management and director for the Rural and Minority Health Research Center. “This is particularly true for children experiencing poverty.”

Nearly 15 percent of children under the age of 18 live in poverty – a percentage that likely increased during the pandemic due to layoffs and income instability – and these children face long-term negative effects related to academic success and development. Poverty has the most profound impact when it occurs in early childhood as this is a critical time for development.

Parents and caregivers play key roles in helping young children develop language, literacy and cognitive skills. Research has shown that early childhood poverty can result in delayed language skills, which impacts academic readiness/attainment as adolescents and even risky behaviors into adulthood.

This study aimed to describe the prevalence of caregiving practices in early childhood across the United States. The researchers looked at three interactive caregiving activities (e.g., reading, storying telling/singing songs, eating a meal together) between parents and children. They analyzed data from more than 14,000 children (ages five and under) from the 2017-2018 National Survey of Children’s Health.

In this data sample, more than one-third of children-caregivers engaged in reading, nearly half participated in singing/storytelling and over half of them ate meals together – all on a daily basis. The authors found that children living in families with incomes below the federal poverty level were less likely to be read to every day compared to families with incomes at 400 percent or more above that level. Further, families with incomes at 100 – 199 percent of the federal poverty level had lower odds of engaging in singing/storytelling every day compared to families in the 400 percent category.

Results from this study also illustrate structural racism in the U.S., with African American and Hispanic children less likely to be read to or sung/told stories to compared to white counterparts. This trend reflects the inequitable access to time, resources and education faced by racial/ethnic minority families.

“These findings have long-term implications for children, as interactive caregiving practices are known to improve cognitive activities such as language development, which is associated with educational attainment into adulthood,” Crouch says. “Finding ways to increase the adoption of interactive caregiving practices may be one way to mitigate disparities in education, especially among families experiencing poverty.”

*Co-authors include Elizabeth Crouch (Health Services Policy and Management, Rural and Minority Health Research Center), Elizabeth Radcliff (Rural and Minority Health Research Center), Melinda Merrell (Health Services Policy and Management), Monique Brown (Epidemiology and Biostatistics, South Carolina SmartState Center for Healthcare Quality), Kevin Bennett (Family and Preventive Medicine).

M. J. Brown is supported by the National Institute of Mental Health of the National Institutes of Health under Award Number K01MH115794.


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