Poverty, social context and children's mental health across the early life course

Albers, Alison Burke, Department of Sociology, University of Virginia
Hetherington, E. Mavis, Department of Psychology, University of Virginia
Kingston, Paul, Department of Sociology, University of Virginia

The purpose of this study was to provide a better understanding of the processes that explain the relation between long-term poverty and mental health among early adolescents. Combining Elder' s life-span principles, Bronfenbrenner' s ecological model and Coleman's theory of social capital, an analytical model of how poverty influences children's mental health was proposed. Each chapter provided an analysis that included the same set of measures in ordinary least square (OLS) regression models predicting outcomes outlined in the heuristic model. New to work in this area is the use of a change model approach. This allowed for the examination of the influence of poverty, its temporal conditions and family structure on change in children's mental health-as measured by internalizing, externalizing and depressive symptoms. Using data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth (NLSY), I found that economic deprivation was associated with maternal psychological distress, neighborhood disorder, residential instability, and peer pressure. For the most part, longitudinal poverty and income did not have particularly strong or consistently negative effects on parenting practices. In the full models, the income and poverty measures generally were not predictive of the mental health outcomes. However, current debt had a significant main effect on externalizing symptoms for females. In sum, the final analyses identified significant contributors to mental health for boys and girls during early adolescence. Female adolescents were particularly vulnerable to the effects of parenting practices and neighborhood disorder, whereas male adolescents were susceptible to peer pressure and family disruption. Maternal education significantly contributed to psychological functioning of both poor boys and girls. The results support the notion that income's correlates, such as maternal education, neighborhood disorder, and punitive parenting, have true effects on children's mental health. In general, the merging of developmentally sensitive concepts with the study of poverty and children's mental health offers promise for a better understanding of the features that produce poor mental health outcomes among children and adolescents.  

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
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