Lucile Packard Foundation for Children's Health      

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The Lucile Packard Foundation for Children's Health | May 8, 2013

A Less-Noticed Consequence of Child Poverty: Poor Health as Adults

Nearly a quarter of California’s children now live in poverty. While the immediate effects of insufficient family income are generally well recognized, less is known about how childhood poverty is closely linked to later health as an adult. Research shows that children who grow up in poverty are more likely to suffer from a range of physical and mental diseases as they age, and even may expect a shorter life span. These long-term consequences of poverty constitute a burden both to the individual and to the public health system. 

More than 20 measures of family income and child poverty have been updated on and several new indicators are now available, including the Census Bureau’s Supplemental Poverty Measure, newly commissioned estimates of families with incomes below the self-sufficiency standard, and CalWORKs enrollment numbers. These data help document the growing numbers of families struggling to make ends meet across California.

Family Income and Child Poverty Measures

One in four California children lived in poverty in 2011 (23%).
At the start of recession in 2007, about 17% of California children were living below the federal poverty level (FPL). By 2011, nearly one in four (23%) California children were living in poverty. Of counties with 65,000 residents or more, child poverty percentages spanned a broad range that year, from 8.6% in Placer County to 37.4% in Merced County. The FPL for a family of two adults and two children in 2011 was an annual income of $22,811 or about $1,900 a month.

More children living in poor households (nearly 30%) than suggested by official federal poverty measure (23%).
The official federal poverty level may underestimate the extent of poverty, especially in high-cost areas of California. The Census Bureau’s relatively new Supplemental Poverty Measure, which takes into account families' expenditures on food, shelter, clothing and utilities, and is adjusted for geographic differences in the cost of housing, shows that almost three out of 10 California children were living in poverty in 2011, well above the national estimate of 18%.   

Vast majority of single parent families with children are struggling to make ends meet.
New data on the percentage of families living below the self-sufficiency standard (the estimated amount of money needed to meet basic needs) paint an even starker picture: Statewide, an estimated 86% of single parent families with one preschooler and one school-aged child had incomes below the self-sufficiency standard of $56,439 in 2011. The median income for families with children, overall, in California was $61,455 in 2011. 

Also See: Trends in CalWORKs enrollment, a program that provides cash aid and services to eligible needy families. About three out of every four recipients are children (1).

Act Now or Pay Later: Research Findings Linking Child Poverty to Poor Adult Health

Childhood poverty can affect the ability of the family to provide the environment and experiences a child needs for optimal cognitive and emotional development. Poverty can contribute to behavioral and social problems and compound poor physical health. Research also shows that childhood poverty can contribute to numerous adverse health outcomes later in life that are more difficult and expensive to address than they would have been during childhood. At a time when California is emerging from economic hardship, it is critical to consider policy solutions to reduce poverty and promote the long-term health of California citizens.

Key findings:

  1. Growing up in poverty is associated with diseases later in life largely due to behavioral risk factors, such as smoking-related cancers, cardiovascular diseases, and diabetes (2).
  2. Children from poorer families are more likely to be exposed to high stress levels that may affect brain functioning. Children who experience the consequences of economic hardship often exhibit elevated levels of the stress hormone cortisol, which can set off a series of changes in the brain and lead to increased vulnerability to numerous mental and physical health conditions (6). A high level of cortisol also can affect the brain's ability to regulate heart rate, respiration, digestion, reproduction, and growth (7).
  3. Even children who escape poverty later in life are more likely to suffer from poor health and mental health outcomes as adults. Regardless of income levels in adulthood, growing up in poverty is linked to adult health problems, including poor cardiovascular and oral health and a higher likelihood of mental health issues, such as substance abuse and depression (3, 4). Children who experience severe and recurring poverty are especially at risk of adult health problems (5).
  4. Low-income children have greater chances of premature death. Numerous studies have concluded that poorer childhood socioeconomic conditions are associated with shorter life-spans (8). Evidence suggests that risks related to poor socioeconomic conditions accumulate throughout life and can lead to adverse outcomes such as stomach cancer, hemorrhagic stroke, and coronary heart disease.


  1. California Budget Project. (2012). Cuts and Consequences: Key Facts About the CalWORKs Program in the Aftermath of the Great Recession.

  2. Lawlor et al. (2006). Association of childhood socioeconomic position with cause-specific mortality in a prospective record linkage study of 1,839,384 individuals. American Journal of Epidemiology, 164(9), 907-15.

  3. Poulton, R. et al. (2002). Association between children's experience of socioeconomic disadvantage and adult health: a life-course study. The Lancet, 360(9346), 1640-1645.

  4. Gilman, S., et al. (2002). Socioeconomic status in childhood and the lifetime risk of major depression. International Journal of Epidemiology, 31(2), 359–367

  5. Najman, et al. (2010). Family poverty over the early life course and recurrent adolescent and young adult anxiety and depression a longitudinal study. American Journal of Public Health,100(9), 1719–23.

  6. National Scientific Council on the Developing Child. (2005). Excessive Stress Disrupts the Architecture of the Developing Brain: Working Paper No. 3.

  7. National Research Council and Institute of Medicine. (2000). From Neurons to Neighborhoods: The Science of Early Childhood Development. Jack P. Shonkoff and Deborah A. Phillips, eds. Board on Children, Youth, and Families, Commission on Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.

  8. Galobardes, B., et al. (2008). Is the association between childhood cause-specific mortality and childhood socioeconomic circumstances established? Update of a systematic review. Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health, 62, 387–390; and Galobardes, B., et al. (2004). Childhood socioeconomic circumstances and cause-specific mortality in adulthood: systematic review and interpretation. Epidemiological Review, 26(1), 7–21. Mascot
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According to the Census Bureau's Supplemental Poverty Measure, about 29% of California children lived in poverty in 2011, compared to 18% nationwide. Mascots is a program of the Lucile Packard Foundation of Children's Health, which uses data to promote the health and well being of children.
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