The Impact of Household Income on Cognitive and Behavioral Development of a Child essay

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This paper examines how household income influences behavioral and cognitive development of pre-school children. Because of the time constraints, the study is based on the review of secondary data from previous studies. This research paper proves that, generally, children from low income families are more withdrawn, aggressive, anxious, and behave worse than children from high income families. Therefore, income transfers can be very effective in reducing the development gap between children from rich and poor families.

Key words: cognitive and behavioral development

The Impact of Household Income on Cognitive and Behavioral Development of a Child


Children from wealthy families are more likely to growth up healthy, cognitively developed, and emotionally stable than those from poor families. The development of a child, in its turn, determines the future economic status of the household.  Children with low behavioral and cognitive intelligence are less likely to perform well at school. As a result, they end up working in low paying jobs and raise their children in poor environment. This study examines the impact of income on child’s development using information from previous studies on child development.


There is a positive relationship between family income and behavioral and cognitive development of children.


The independent variable is Household income. Dependent variables are cognitive and behavioral development.

Research Methods

Review of Secondary Information

According to Aber, Bennett, Conley, and Li (1997), studies have demonstrated that poverty has negative influence on child’s health and development. Nonetheless, there has been no consensus on how poverty should be measured. One of the difficulties has been that poverty is associated with numerous social conditions that have adverse effects on children. The Federal poverty measure utilizes income thresholds that represent the minimum standard of family’s economic resources. In 1995, it was $12,158 for a three-member family and $15,569 for a four-member family. In this sense, poverty can be reduced by guaranteeing every family a certain amount of income above the present threshold. This is different from relative poverty that depends on distribution of income. Therefore, the best definition of poverty is the one which is publicly acceptable and statistically measurable. Aber, Bennett, Conley and Li (1997) argue that once conceptual and methodological issues concerning definition of poverty are settled, the most appropriate way to examine effect of poverty on health and development of children lies within an ecological and cumulative framework.

Authors assert that poverty affects various aspects of child’s life. For instance, it affects interactions between parents and children as well as between parents and other adults. It also affects ones neighborhood, availability of basic education for children, job opportunities, and social networks for adults. Mortality rate of infants is a key indicator of the development of a society. Authors further claim that there has been a decline in infant mortality in the course of the 20th century mainly because of reduced number of post-neonatal deaths. However, the decline has slowed down since1980s because of the increased incidences of low birth-weight and little improvement in terms of mortality rates related to birth weight. Studies have shown that reduction of the number of instances of low birth weight leads to a reduction of infant death rate. Historically, it has been easier to ascertain race differentials in mortality rates and low birth-weight than socioeconomic differentials. Although various studies have shown the connection between country level poverty and infant mortality rates, they have not shown the direct connection between poverty at the household level and infant mortality.

Infants born in poor families have a higher risk of low birth-weight. However, poverty is linked not only to infant mortality rates. Low birth-weight children who live longer than five years can develop neurological defects. The most common is subnormal head circumference. Birth weight and gestation age are also linked to poor language comprehension skills in young children. Furthermore, low birth-weight infants lack visual recognition acuity and their intellectual and psychological development is affected. Low birth-weight babies also exhibit greater problems related to classroom behavior than babies born with normal weight. They also suffer from iron deficiency, which affects their health (Aber, Bennett, Conley, & Li, 1997).  

Regardless of the birth weight of a baby, poverty can induce serious health problems that can lead to death. Some studies also demonstrate the importance of racial differences in socioeconomic status, health, and development of children. They have shown that for whites, abnormal child development is caused by poverty at the family level, while for blacks it is the conditions related to poverty rather than family income per se that affect child’s development. Researchers agree that higher mortality rates of children from poor families result from increased risk of illness and accidents coupled with lower incidences of early intervention. Poverty also affects child development through causal mechanisms such as parenting behavior, stress, divorce, and separation. In addition, low-income parents are unlikely to provide their children with necessary things such as books, toys, preschool education, and adequate day care which are supposed to stimulate the child’s brain. Aber, Bennett, Conley, and Li (1997) assert that parents who experience economic difficulties have poor relationships with their children because they often experience stress, depression, and marital problems.

This is affirmed by a study by Yeung, Linver, and Brooks-Gunn (2002), which states that development of youths and children largely depends of family income. However, scholars disagree about the significance of effect and causality of family’s income in relation to development of children. This is because factors such as parental abilities, attitudes, and health cannot be measured, and yet they can affect the size of family’s income. Nonetheless, the authors claim that family income has a long-term effect on the ability of children to get education. Earning high income, families can purchase materials, services and experiences to invest in development of their children. For instance, they can buy books, housing, food, school care, and stimulating learning materials. Therefore, the development of children from low-income families is hindered in the sense that these children cannot afford necessary resources for development.

Investment in child’s learning environment is a great determinant of his/her economic success, while investment in healthcare, safe neighborhood, and comfortable home environment enhances child’s development. Income also affects family processes. Therefore, low family income affects child development because it is a determinant of nonmonetary capacities of parents. For instance, it affects their emotions and interactions with family members. Yeung, Linver, and Brooks-Gunn (2002) found out that children from wealthy families had fewer behavioral problems and scored higher in cognitive tests. However, the effect of the household income level on children’s behavior was modest.

On the other hand, income instability in the family is perceived to have a direct effect on children’s problem solving and reading abilities. Although it does not seem to have a direct effect on their behavior, income stability affects parenting behavior, which is associated with behavior problems in children. Sufficient income of the family reduces maternal distress and leads to better parenting practices. In turn, this creates favorable home environment and decreases behavior problems. Yeung, Linver, and Brooks-Gunn (2002) attempted to separate parental investment of time and cognitive stimulating materials that are bought by parents. In doing so, researchers realized that interactive parental activities can make parents buy intellectually stimulating materials for their children and, therefore, enhance their cognitive development. Furthermore, authors assert that sufficient family income reduces maternal distress by improving family resources. Therefore, psychological wellbeing of the mother and parental distress depend on the environment, which the family lives in. Yeung, Linver, and Brooks-Gunn (2002) claim that family income affects child development in more than one way. However, these understanding these effects alone cannot provide a comprehensive way of solving children’s behavior problems. The authors also recommend that future studies should focus on the evaluation of welfare policies. For instance, while an increase in family income is perceived to enhance cognitive stimulation, encourage learning, and improve parental behavior, it is not clear whether families with low income adjust their financial status in the current economic situation.

Duncan, Brooks-Gunn, and Klebanov (1994) affirm that children raised in low-income families have less enjoyable childhood.  However, they argue that effects of poverty on child development are not fully understood because of various reasons. For instance, previous studies exploring the connection between poverty and child development have not included careful measurements of economic deficiency. As a result, most studies have relied on socioeconomic status of the family rather than on family income. Authors argue that social class and income are two different characteristics that should be distinguished. This is because family income can be used in policy manipulation more easily than the characteristics of poverty such as unemployment and low level schooling.

In addition, authors argue that there is a very important but often neglected aspect of poverty. Most studies perceive poverty as a short-term issue, but it has a long-term impact on the whole childhood of a baby. Therefore, the effect of duration and sensitivity of poverty is questionable. In terms of duration, it can be argued that short-term poverty is less detrimental than long-term poverty. Nonetheless, if family’s income moves slightly above the poverty line, there will be minimal change in its wellbeing because the change in income will not be sufficient enough to enable the family to make meaningful changes like moving to a better house or neighborhood that would improve children’s development.

Duncan, Brooks-Gunn, and Klebanov (1994) assert that child development can also be affected by the timing of poverty. Furthermore, the authors affirm that poverty has some ecological dimensions, which make it difficult to understand. For instance, the official definition of poverty assumes that all family members collect their income together and use it as a family, yet this is not always the case. Distribution of family income is, therefore, a significant issue that should be considered.

Analyzing Results

The study has clearly shown that there is a strong positive relationship between family income and child development, even though there is no common definition of poverty. Nonetheless, it is clear that children from wealthy families have higher cognitive and behavioral development than those from low-income families. Aber, Bennett, Conley, and Li (1997) argue that the Federal poverty measure is based on a national poverty threshold. On the other hand, Duncan, Brooks-Gunn, and Klebanov (1994) argue that most studies address poverty based on socioeconomic factors rather than on the actual household income level. Nevertheless, parents from wealthy families experience less stress and depression and they can afford to buy toys, which stimulate the development of intellectual abilities of children. On the other hand, low-income families have limited resources and they have to use little money they have to meet their basic needs, which is still not enough for the family.


The study has shown that cognitive and behavioral development of children is significantly affected by low family income. Therefore, children born in low-income families are unlikely to get higher education, which makes it difficult for them to get well paying jobs. However, the limitation of this study is that it did not consider the possibility of student loans from the government, which has enabled many children from poor families to go to school and improve their families’ livelihoods. Future studies should, therefore, consider external forces such as health insurance, school bursaries, and other forms of support that can make the lives of children from low-income families more comfortable and in this way improve their cognitive, physical, and behavioral development.

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