July 15, 2022

Our Works of Charity / David Bethuram

Addressing the impact of poverty on children and families

David Bethuram

Living in poverty can lead to long-term detriments in child development and family life.

With mothers playing such a critical role in family structure and children’s growth, it’s important to know more about the potential long-term hardships associated with poverty in children and families.

Poverty can contribute to parental relationship conflict, stress and parental depression, which plays a critical role in family dynamics and can lead to negative child outcomes. Economic pressures may also give rise to relationship tension between the parent and child, such as resentment toward the parent for not spending enough time with them because of work.

Research shows that kids growing up in poverty have poorer health outcomes, putting them at a higher risk of developing health problems such as asthma and impairment of functional health (e.g. vision, hearing, speech, mobility). They may also have higher rates of childhood injuries and mental health problems (e.g., hyperactivity, lack of attention, depression). Children living in poverty also have a stronger association with poorer social relationships and lower academic achievement.

Holly’s story is heartbreaking, but it is not unique. She is among the 776,000 Hoosiers who are poor. She is 24 years old and the mother of three little girls—ages 6, 4 and 2. They all have different fathers.

Holly got married two years ago to a man who isn’t the father of any of her children, but he recently left her for someone else. “I just feel like I get one piece of good news that makes me [think] life isn’t gonna be that bad, and then here comes 30 things to basically push me right back down in this hole that I feel like I’ve been trying to dig myself out of for the last probably 15 years,” she says.

Holly did not just become poor. A lot of bad things happened to get her there. Like many others who are poor, she doesn’t have just one or two problems, but a whole pile of them. She was raised by a single mother, who was also poor. Holly says they didn’t always get along. And things came to a head when she was 12.

‘My mom and I got in a fight, and she told me she was going to kill me,” Holly recalls. “And I wrapped a belt around my neck and told her I would do it for her. I ended up in a psychiatric hospital, and from there I went to foster care.”

That meant moving from home to home to home. Holly attended 26 different schools.

Holly admits she’s been responsible for some of her own problems. She says she used to be an alcoholic and was into self-harm, which means she cut herself to feel pain. Today she has tattoos on her arms to cover the scars.

Like others, she carried her poverty into adulthood, doing odd jobs with periods of homelessness and hunger. But more disturbing is that poverty is now starting to take its toll on her children, especially her eldest daughter. Holly says the girl recently tried to run away from home in the middle of the night.

The unfortunate reality for many lone, working mothers like Holly is that there is a trade-off between time with their child or children and work. The unpredictable and inflexible schedules often associated with low-wage jobs can pose difficulties for working parents to secure stable child care, obtain education necessary to find better paying jobs, or hold multiple jobs (which are often necessary to make ends meet in lower-wage jobs). These scheduling challenges not only pose a threat to economic security for single moms but also negatively impact child development as some moms re unable to be fully present for their children.

Catholic Charities strives to address poverty’s impact on child development and family life by providing comprehensive, direct support to mothers and their children. We are committed to fostering the positive capacities of parents through programs and services that build stronger support networks.

Supporting moms facing the dual challenges of poverty and lone parenting is a proven and effective way to improve the lives of vulnerable children.

(David Bethuram is executive director of the archdiocesan Secretariat for Catholic Charities. You can contact him at dbethuram@archindy.org.) †

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