Study: How poverty and income affect childhood happiness

Where parenting comes first: A study published by an international team of pediatricians suggested that being “cheerful, interactive, competent, responsible and hard-working” were the top three traits parents should look for when raising kids….

Study: How poverty and income affect childhood happiness

Where parenting comes first: A study published by an international team of pediatricians suggested that being “cheerful, interactive, competent, responsible and hard-working” were the top three traits parents should look for when raising kids. What’s more, the study suggested, those qualities are more significant than parental gender, although experts on women and child-care have raised their eyebrows at that conclusion. A new study out of the University of California, Lecce, published in the journal Science, sheds light on one important aspect of the role that social norms and culture play in children’s happiness and development: the amount of money families are able to afford for daycare.

The study’s lead author, Francesco Barbari, has been experimenting with brain imaging techniques, mapping out how people perform simple cognitive tasks by having them listen to audio tapes. In these trials, he has been giving participants in the control group a small amount of money and in the experiment with more money, he’s been giving them a mix of cash and grant money and different answers to the questions they had to answer. As expected, the more money was involved, the more people performed well on the various tasks, but his original trial with all of the answers ranked first. Which led him to wonder, why? Why should this be the case?

Given that social norms affect the decisions that are made, Barbari hypothesized that the importance of resources would increase the lower the quality of the resources. And in fact, having different resources in wealthier countries led to higher scores for those in lower-income countries than those in richer countries. If more cash led to better performance on the tasks, Barbari thought, this could explain the effects of household income on adults’ mental health — and by extension, what they learn in school and the ways they develop.

To understand the link between cash and mental health, Barbari and his team used statistical tools and weighed existing research results. They found that a person’s income correlated with a higher likelihood of having a higher depressive score. Among mothers in Italy, income correlated with higher rates of depression, higher levels of impulsive behavior, and low happiness in their relationships with their child. And, beyond that, as one would expect, that lower income also led to a lower level of happy parenting.

Barbari wasn’t surprised by the results — he says that he has a philosophical approach to economics, arguing that parents shouldn’t expect or expect anything, as long as they work as hard as they can to raise their children. But he wasn’t quite ready to come to any conclusions about why the results pointed to lower social support for parents with lower income. When Barbari and his team checked up with their subjects several years later, he saw that the relationship between lower income and lower mental health didn’t carry on to the end of the study period.

When asked about the findings, Barbari said that he preferred not to rush to definitive conclusions but that they fit into a larger trend that is important to consider when thinking about the social and economic effects on children. “Parents need to be aware that as a society, there is a possibility that when family income goes down, if they have two kids, depending on where in the world they are, that there’s a bigger drop in the educational performance of the kids.”

A little disappointment on this front is understandable, given that Barbari and his team were able to use neuroimaging techniques to make that connection, even though two decades of data did not add up to a conclusive conclusion. For now, Barbari said that the results provide a framework for a meaningful discussion about whether attitudes that value and encourage social support of families with lower incomes carry over into children’s mental health, as well as the ways in which resources are used, which methods of child-care choice are most successful and how best to use those resources. Given that any new answers they might offer would likely be based on what we know already, we can likely expect more of the same when it comes to health and well-being.

Read the full story at Sciencemag.org.

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