Childhood poverty and mental wellbeing

By JIANG YANFEI and WEI JUAN / 08-15-2022 / Chinese Social Sciences Today

A little girl sells waste paper to a man who works for a recycle factory in Guangzhou, Guangdong Province. Photo: ZHANG TAO/PROVIDED TO CSST

Growing up in a poor family is an important factor influencing an individual’s mental wellbeing. On the one hand, it increases a person’s mental health risk, since they are often more stressed, poorer emotional regulation capacity, and more problems such as anxiety and depression. On the other hand, people who are from poor households tend to acquire positive personality traits while fighting against adversities, such as resilience and positive values, which may be beneficial to mental health development. Although there is no sweeping conclusion as to whether family poverty affects a person more negatively or positively, a deeper probe into the issue might provide new ways of thinking for consolidating the outcome of China’s poverty alleviation endeavor to better link mental health with the country’s rural revitalization drive. 

A scarcity mindset, resulting from insufficient resources on a long-term basis, is a harmful mental behavior pattern typical to those who have experienced long-term poverty, mainly manifested as “aspiration failure” and “unwise behavior.” 
Compared to those in other groups, parents in poor households have less to invest in children’s education, while children also expect less from their education. On average, individuals from poor families have significantly lower expected outcomes for their education and career path than those from non-poor families. 
The pressure of daily subsistence makes it more likely for poor individuals to focus on daily survival, resulting in a reduced mental bandwidth. They spend more time worrying about costs and money, which not only leads to narrowed attention, but also consumes their cognitive and executive functions, leading to short-sighted decisions that ignore long-term interests. 
Living in poverty has different levels of negative impact on the mental and physical health of different age groups. Childhood experiences of growing up poor have long-range impacts on a person’s well-being even after they reach adulthood. The chances to have smaller gray matter volume and hippocampus volume for those kids are bigger than their counterparts in non-poor households, which  will affect their memory retention as they grow up. 
Children in poor households face greater psychological risks and are more likely to develop internalized emotional problems. Adolescence is a key turning point, in which individuals gradually separate themselves from their families, while forming their own social and economic status. In the meantime, there is a two-way interactive relationship between their mental and physical wellbeing and family poverty, which serves as their chance to reverse the resource scarcity they experienced during childhood through uplifting initiatives. 
Mental health problems in childhood and teenage years continue to affect one’s earnings in adulthood. A person’s adult-stage social and economic status can negatively predict one’s mental and physical health. An adult’s job, income, and mental wellbeing also combine to determine one’s mental and physical health in old age. Elderly people from families with low economic status face significantly more mental health challenges than those from higher social and economic status. 
Most studies focus on the negative impact of living in a poor household, while ignoring the possible positive effects of the experience. Poverty can develop resilience, and strong personality traits resulting from facing adversity. Mental elasticity and stress management strategies are boosted, which may result in better mental and social functions.
Those growing up in poor families can be stronger and more tenacious. This can become a mental resource and protective factor while facing setbacks and adversities, which also helps subjects develop more positive psychological qualities. 
Meanwhile, individuals that have experienced poverty in childhood are often not satisfied with the status quo, or are more afraid of repeating historic poverty cycles, therefore they are more likely to take the initiative and make the most of opportunities they have. 
Students from poor households tend to have better grades than those from non-poor households. While studying endows them with greater self-respect, confidence, and other positive experiences, these students also develop a more positive perception of themselves. Positive self-perception and higher ambitions significantly raise a poor student’s sense of achievement and happiness, and those with a more positive outlook on stress can better deal with negative incidents in life. 
Regulating tools
The aftermath of living in a poor family is shown in a series of mental health problems, as well as somatopsychic disturbance such as cognitive damage, and emotional dysregulation, all of which result from being exposed to resource insufficiency on a long-term basis. The upside of family poverty on individuals is mainly shown via positive psychological traits, as well as flexible and active social adaptation. However, these positive effects are not a direct causal relationship, but a joint result of multiple factors, some of the key factors being: social support, education, and positive psychological traits. 
Social support is an important psychological resource. It helps to maintain and improve an individual’s physical and psychological health by adjusting the negative impacts of other factors, such as material poverty. Social support helps to develop mental elasticity, and they both can relieve the stress that might be caused by living in poverty, and ease harmful emotional reactions towards poverty, including depression and anxiety. 
Education is another key adjustment factor that helps an individual break away from poverty. Home education gives an individual various cultural values, work skills, and personal traits. A sound parent-child relationship can reduce problem behaviors in children, whilst family affection and proper care endow children with positive mental resources which help them tide adversities, and cope with challenges in uncertain circumstances. Through passing on knowledge and skills, expanding students’ horizons, and fostering confidence, school education can reshape the way a student perceives and thinks. 
Education helps students establish correct values, acquire necessary knowledge, capacities, and coping skills, and develop endogenous power to overcome poverty, thereby increase their opportunities to access various material or psychological resources and their ability to counteract plights. 
Resilience is the core impetus to enable an individual to forge ahead, and eventually shake off the aftermath of poverty. When children from poor households believe in social mobility, they tend to persevere consistently at school. Greater ambition increases a student’s sense of success and happiness, while a more positive outlook on stress makes a student better equipped to deal with negative incidents in life. 
Self-esteem is the key to mental health. The higher it is, the better a person’s mental health status. When an individual has self-reliance, seeks self-improvement, practices self-discipline, self-examination, and self-encouragement, they can develop more self-esteem and improve their mental well-being. 
With theoretic and practical significance, studies on the psychology of poverty can provide new opportunities and ways of thinking for consolidating China’s achievement in poverty reduction, while linking poverty alleviation with rural revitalization, as is stated in China’s Long-Range Objectives Through the Year 2035. 
Rural revitalization requires both “hard power” fueled by economic development and “soft power” generated by culture. Going forward, children and adolescents are the core of rural revitalization. Therefore, a fundamental task of rural cultural revitalization is to foster positive psychological traits among children. Future studies need to combine family education with school education, while paying more attention to conducting strategic research in early intervention with children born into poverty. It is also necessary to explore ways to help children and adolescents foster positive psychological qualities and develop healthy patterns of behavior. This calls for researchers to probe deeper and initiate more practices which establish new models, methods, and paths towards cultural revitalization with ecological validity. 
Jiang Yanfei is a lecturer from the School of Psychology at Northwest Normal University, and Wei Juan is from the Key Laboratory for Behavioral and Mental Health in Gansu Province, also at Northwest Normal University’s School of Psychology.
Edited by WENG RONG