Poverty and Chaos

This article is based on a presentation at the First Urie Bronfenbrenner Conference at Cornell, October 2007.
Gary W. Evans, Department of Human Development and Department of Design and Environmental Analysis, Cornell University

John Eckenrode, Department of Human Development, and Director of the Family Life Development Center, Cornell University

Lyscha Marcynyszyn, Kings County Mental Health, Chemical Abuse, and Dependency Services Division

The first Urie Bronfenbrenner Conference, Chaos and Children’s Development: Levels of Analysis and Mechanisms, was held on the campus of Cornell University in October 2007 in honor of the late Urie Bronfenbrenner, Jacob Gould Schurman Professor Emeritus, who is internationally known for his contributions to the ecology of human development. The focus of this interdisciplinary conference was on how chaotic environmental settings, characterized by high levels of noise, crowding, instability, and a lack of structure and predictability, influence human development from infancy through adolescence. Bronfenbrenner’s bioecological model views child development as occurring within the context of the complex system of relationships in his or her environment. The main tenet of his theory is that development is powerfully shaped by the interactions between the child’s own biology, immediate family, community environment, and the larger society. Four nested levels or systems influence each other and the development of children: Microsystem: Immediate environments such as family, school, peer group, neighborhood, and childcare;

Mesosystem: A system comprised of connections between immediate environments such as a child’s home and school;

Exosystem: External environmental settings which only indirectly affect development such as parent's workplace; and

Macrosystem: The larger cultural context, national economy, political culture. According to this model, human development takes place through proximal processes – increasingly complex reciprocal interactions between the individual and the people, objects, and symbols in his or her immediate environment. Proximal processes are seen as the primary engines of development. Developmental outcomes are the result of the interaction of proximal processes and characteristics of the individual. Context can shape the occurrence of these processes as well as moderate their impacts. The length, frequency and regularity of exposure to proximal processes are also important to consider.

If the proximal processes in the immediate microsystem break down, the child will not have the tools to develop optimally. Using Bronfenbrenner's bioecological model as a theoretical framework, Evans’ presentation at the Bronfenbrenner conference, co-authored with John Eckenrode and Lyscha Marcynyszyn, examines the connections between poverty, chaotic living environments, and child development.
There are many reasons why the lives of low-income children are more chaotic than middle- and high-income households. Low-income parents suffer from many physical and social stressors. Poor parents juggle overlapping time obligations and have fewer resources than wealthier parents to deal with the multitude of demands and obligations they face. Low-income parents are less likely to have a reliable car, they cannot afford high quality and flexible childcare or after school care, they are less likely to have a partner who can share the burdens of household management as well as assisting in parenting, and their children are less likely to be enrolled in structured programs. Residential and school relocations, which erode social networks, are more common, and family disruptions and turmoil are much more frequent among low-income families (Evans, 2004).
Components of chaos that have been associated with socioeconomic status (SES) include household crowding, noise levels, household routines and rituals, residential and school relocation, as well as changes in parental romantic partners.
Crowding. Crowding, typically defined as people per room, contributes to chaotic living and school settings. Crowded settings are often over stimulating, confusing, and have a high degree of unpredictability and uncontrollability. Research shows that low-income and low SES families with children live under more crowded conditions (Evans, Eckenrode, & Marcynyszyn, 2007). High interior density appears to be especially problematic because it makes it extremely difficult to regulate social interaction.
Noise. Noise includes car traffic, airport noise, activities of other people, music, and various appliances. Studies of noise exposure indicate that it over stimulates the brain and when unpredictable can startle as well as interfere with relaxation and sleep. Noise interferes with concentration and often leads to greater expenditure of effort to maintain attention. Noise causes fatigue and is clearly linked to elevated negative affect, including irritability and hostility Evans 2001; 2006). In studies comparing noise exposures between various groups by income, poor children are exposed to between 5 and 10 more decibels on average (Evans et al., 2007). A ten decibel increase is perceived as twice as loud.
Routines. One of the key elements of stability in children's lives is the degree of structure and predictability in daily routines. Research indicates that families with higher SES are more likely to maintain meal, nap, and bedtime routines (Britto, Fuligni, & Brooks-Gunn, 2002). Flexibility and support may be in relatively short supply for parents with fewer economic and/or SES resources to draw upon. For example lower wage jobs, at least in the US, have less regular schedules (Han, 2005). Changes in parental work hours, particularly if frequent or unpredictable can make it difficult to maintain structure and routines in daily life.
Residential relocation. A major contributor to chaos in children's lives are changes in home or school location. Both types of changes disrupt children's social networks and remove them from familiar surroundings. Research suggests that if either type of move is frequent, children may also become reluctant to establish new friendships or to rely upon adults for guidance and support because they may soon have to break those ties and start over again (Adam, 2004). Relocation also disrupts geographic orientation and the ability to explore and extend one's range of activities. When school changes occur, children may also be confronted with unfamiliar academic demands in addition to the change in peers and teachers. Low-income children are more apt to experience changes in residence (Kohen, Hertzman, & Wiens, 1998; Wood, Halfon, Scarlata, Newacheck & Nessim, 1993).
School relocations. Studies indicate that low-income children change schools more often than those from families with higher incomes (Evans et al., 2007). In addition, teachers in low-income schools are more likely to relocate (Rutter et al., 1974), to have less experience and less educational background in their subject areas, and be paid less (Evans, 2004).
Maternal partner change. Family turmoil associated with poverty often leads to dissolution of romantic partnerships. Changes in household composition are highly disruptive for children. Research shows that the levels of divorce and changes in parental partners are strongly linked to SES. For example in the United States, the divorce rate is almost five times higher in the lowest income quintile (25.4%) than among the upper income quintile for households with children (5.7%) (Evans, 2004).
There is abundant evidence that various aspects of chaos are associated with income, education, and social class. Likewise there is evidence to support the adverse effects of chaotic living conditions on children's cognitive, socioemotional, and physical well being. This pattern of inter-relationships suggests the potential for chaotic environments to function as underlying mechanisms in child development, indicating a poverty→chaos→socioemotional outcomes pathway. Indeed studies provide preliminary evidence that the higher levels of adverse socioemotional outcomes, including psychological distress, learned helplessness, and self-regulatory behavior found in low-income households are brought about, in part, by higher levels of chaos in these households (Evans et al., 2007).
Bronfenbrenner's bioecological model of human development provides a theoretical framework to address the question of why chaos is harmful to children's development. One of the key elements of the bioecological model is proximal process. In order for proximal processes to be effective, they must take place regularly, over an extended period of time, and involve progressively more complex, reciprocal interactions (Bronfenbrenner & Evans, 2000; Bronfenbrenner & Morris, 1998). A fundamental reason that chaos is harmful to the developing child is because it interferes with effective proximal processes.
The predictability and sustained nature of increasingly complex interactions becomes more difficult to maintain in chaotic households. Children cannot develop socially cohesive, meaningful relationships with people unless they see them regularly and can count on them being around.
Not only are proximal processes less likely to occur in chaotic settings, but children and caregivers may respond to their surroundings in ways that exacerbate the negative consequences of chaos. For example, studies indicate that parents may become less responsive (Matheny, Wachs, Ludwig, & Phillips, 1995), exhibit less parental warmth, and adopt harsher parent-child interactions when living in chaotic environments (Coldwell, Pike, & Dunn, 2006). Likewise there is evidence that lack of structure and unpredictability have consequences for children’s feelings of mastery and self efficacy and may also undermine self-regulatory ability (Evans & Stecker, 2004; White, 1959).
Chaotic living conditions can interfere with the processes that are integral to the development of healthy, well adjusted children. Children need an environment that supports regular, sustained, increasingly complex interactions and relationships. Abundant evidence shows that poverty is bad for children's development. Not only are poor children more likely to experience adverse living conditions, such conditions often converge in a manner that undermines predictability and interferes with structure and routines in the daily lives of children.

Adam. E.K. (2004). Beyond quality: Parental and residential stability and children's adjustment. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 13, 210-213.

Bronfenbrenner, U., & Evans, G. W. (2000). Developmental science in the 21st century: emerging theoretical models, research designs, and empirical findings. Social Development, 9, 115-125.

Bronfenbrenner, U., & Morris, P. (1998). The ecology of developmental processes. In W. Damon & R. Lerner (Eds.), Handbook of Child Psychology (5th ed., Vol. 1, pp. 992-1028). New York: Wiley.

Britto, P. R., Fuligni, A. S., & Brooks-Gunn, J. (2002). Reading, rhymes, and routines: American parents and their young children. In N. Halfon (Ed.), Childrearing in America (pp. 117-145). New York: Cambridge University Press.

Coldwell, J., Pike, A., & Dunn, J. (2006). Household chaos - links with parenting and child behaviour. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 47, 116-1122.

Evans, G. W. (2001). Environmental stress and health. In A. Baum, T. Revenson & J. E. Singer (Eds.), Handbook of Health Psychology (pp. 365-385). Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

Evans, G. W. (2004). The environment of childhood poverty. American Psychologist, 59, 77-92. Evans, G. W. (2006). Child development and the physical environment. Annual Review of Psychology, 57, 423-451.

Evans, G. W., Eckenrode, J., & Marcynyszyn, L. (2007, October). Poverty and Chaos. Paper presented at The First Bronfenbrenner Conference, Chaos and Children’s Development: Levels of Analysis and Mechanisms, Ithaca, NY.

Evans, G. W., & Stecker, R. (2004). The motivational consequences of environmental stress. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 24, 143-165.

Han, W. J. (2005). Maternal nonstandard work schedules and child cognitive outcomes. Child Development, 76, 137-154.

Kohen, D. E., Hertzman, C., & Wiens, M. (1998). Environmental changes and children's competencies. Applied Research Branch Strategic Policy, Human Resources Development Canada, Quebec, Canada..

Matheny, A., Wachs, T. D., Ludwig, J., & Phillips, K. (1995). Bringing order out of chaos: Psychometric characteristics of the confusion, hubbub, and order scale. Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, 16, 429-444.

Rutter, M., Yule, B., Quinton, D., Rowland, O., Yule, W., & Berger, M. (1974). Attainment and adjustment in two geographic areas: III. Some factors accounting for area differences. British Journal of Psychiatry, 125, 520-533.

White, R. (1959). Motivation reconsidered: The concept of competence. Psychological Review, 66, 297-333.

Wood, D., Halfon, N., Scarlata, D., Newacheck, P., & Nessim, S. (1993). Impact of family relocation on children's growth, development, school function, and behavior. Journal of the American Medical Association, 270, 1334-1338.

Further Resources

Chaos and Children’s Development: Distance learning panel seminar. June, 17, 2008, 114 MVR Hall, Cornell University or CCE video downlink locations.

Chaos Amidst Stability: The Diverging Fortunes of American Children in Historical Perspective: article

Human Development Today e-News

Human Development Outreach & Extension