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Mental health effects of poverty, hunger, and homelessness on children and teens



Rising inflation and an uncertain economy are deeply affecting the lives of millions of Americans, particularly those living in low-income communities. It may seem impossible for a family of four to survive on just over $27,000 per year or a single person on just over $15,000, but that’s what millions of people do everyday in the United States. Approximately 37.9 million Americans, or just under 12%, now live in poverty, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.


Additional data from the Bureau show that children are more likely to experience poverty than people over the age of 18. Approximately one in six kids, 16% of all children, live in families with incomes below the official poverty line.


Those who are poor face challenges beyond a lack of resources. They also experience mental and physical issues at a much higher rate than those living above the poverty line. Read on for a summary of the myriad effects of poverty, homelessness, and hunger on children and youth. And for more information on APA’s work on issues surrounding socioeconomic status, please see the Office of Socioeconomic Status.


Who is most affected?


Poverty rates are disproportionately higher among most non-White populations. Compared to 8.2% of White Americans living in poverty, 26.8% of American Indian and Alaska Natives, 19.5% of Blacks, 17% of Hispanics and 8.1% of Asians are currently living in poverty.


Similarly, Black, Hispanic, and Indigenous children are overrepresented among children living below the poverty line. More specifically, 35.5% of Black people living in poverty in the U.S. are below the age of 18. In addition, 40.7% of Hispanic people living below the poverty line in the U.S. are younger than age 18, and 29.1% of American Indian and Native American children lived in poverty in 2018. In contrast, approximately 21% of White people living in poverty in the U.S. are less than 18 years old.


Furthermore, families with a female head of household are more than twice as likely to live in poverty compared to families with a male head of household. Twenty-three percent of female-headed households live in poverty compared to 11.4% of male-headed households, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.


What are the effects of poverty on children and teens?


The impact of poverty on young children is significant and long lasting. Poverty is associated with substandard housing, hunger, homelessness, inadequate childcare, unsafe neighborhoods, and under-resourced schools. In addition, low-income children are at greater risk than higher-income children for a range of cognitive, emotional, and health-related problems, including detrimental effects on executive functioning, below average academic achievement, poor social emotional functioning, developmental delays, behavioral problems, asthma, inadequate nutrition, low birth weight, and higher rates of pneumonia.


Psychological research also shows that living in poverty is associated with differences in structural and functional brain development in children and adolescents in areas related to cognitive processes that are critical for learning, communication, and academic achievement, including social emotional processing, memory, language, and executive functioning.


Children and families living in poverty often attend under-resourced, overcrowded schools that lack educational opportunities, books, supplies, and appropriate technology due to local funding policies. In addition, families living below the poverty line often live in school districts without adequate equal learning experiences for both gifted and special needs students with learning differences and where high school dropout rates are high.


What are the effects of hunger on children and teens?


One in eight U.S. households with children, approximately 12.5%, could not buy enough food for their families in 2021, considerably higher than the rate for households without children (9.4%). Black (19.8%) and Latinx (16.25%) households are disproportionately impacted by food insecurity, with food insecurity rates in 2021 triple and double the rate of White households (7%), respectively.


Research has found that hunger and undernutrition can have a host of negative effects on child development. For example, maternal undernutrition during pregnancy increases the risk of negative birth outcomes, including premature birth, low birth weight, smaller head size, and lower brain weight. In addition, children experiencing hunger are at least twice as likely to report being in fair or poor health and at least 1.4 times more likely to have asthma, compared to food-secure children.


The first three years of a child’s life are a period of rapid brain development. Too little energy, protein and nutrients during this sensitive period can lead to lasting deficits in cognitive, social and emotional development. School-age children who experience severe hunger are at increased risk for poor mental health and lower academic performance, and often lag behind their peers in social and emotional skills.


What are the effects of homelessness on children and teens?


Approximately 1.2 million public school students experienced homelessness during the 2019-2020 school year, according to the National Center for Homeless Education (PDF, 1.4MB). The report also found that students of color experienced homelessness at higher proportions than expected based on the overall number of students. Hispanic and Latino students accounted for 28% of the overall student body but 38% of students experiencing homelessness, while Black students accounted for 15% of the overall student body but 27% of students experiencing homelessness. While White students accounted for 46% of all students enrolled in public schools, they represented 26% of students experiencing homelessness.


Homelessness can have a tremendous impact on children, from their education, physical and mental health, sense of safety, and overall development. Children experiencing homelessness frequently need to worry about where they will live, their pets, their belongings, and other family members. In addition, homeless children are less likely to have adequate access to medical and dental care, and may be affected by a variety of health challenges due to inadequate nutrition and access to food, education interruptions, trauma, and disruption in family dynamics.


In terms of academic achievement, students experiencing homelessness are more than twice as likely to be chronically absent than non-homeless students, with greater rates among Black and Native American or Alaska Native students. They are also more likely to change schools multiple times and to be suspended—especially students of color.


Further, research shows that students reporting homelessness have higher rates of victimization (PDF, 10MB), including increased odds of being sexually and physically victimized, and bullied. Student homelessness correlates with other problems, even when controlling for other risks. They experienced significantly greater odds of suicidality, substance abuse, alcohol abuse, risky sexual behavior, and poor grades in school.


What can you do to help children and families experiencing poverty, hunger, and homelessness?


There are many ways that you can help fight poverty in America. Some ideas are:


  • Volunteer your time with charities and organizations that provide assistance to low-income and homeless children and families.

  • Donate money, food, and clothing to homeless shelters and other charities in your community.

  • Donate school supplies and books to underresourced schools in your area.


  • Improve access to physical, mental, and behavioral health care for low-income Americans by eliminating barriers such as limitations in health care coverage.

  • Create a “safety net” for children and families that provides real protection against the harmful effects of economic insecurity.Increase the minimum wage, affordable housing and job skills training for low-income and homeless Americans.

  • Intervene in early childhood to support the health and educational development of low-income children.Provide support for low-income and food insecure children such as Head Start, the National School Lunch Program, and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF).

  • Increase resources for public education and access to higher education.Support research on poverty and its relationship to health, education, and well-being.


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