The Environment of Child Poverty

Gary W. Evans is Elizabeth Lee Vincent Professor of Human Ecology at Cornell University. The focus of his studies is how the physical environment affects human health and well being among children. His specific areas of expertise include childhood poverty, environmental stress and children’s environments.

Prof Evans is member of the Board on Children, Youth and Families of the National Academy of Sciences. The board makes policy recommendations related to health and development for children, youth, and families.

Evans’ presentation at the IAPS International conference in Glasgow demonstrated the relationships between poverty and health outcomes, both physical and mental, and the legacy that poor environment can have on children. He presented some of the findings from the work of his team over a 20 year study and from wider research. The studies were based in the US however Evans suggests that much of the learning is relevant to other parts of the world, including Scotland.

The ‘multiple stressor’ study which sampled 50% children defined as poor and 50% middle class explored the effects of physical environmental factors such as residential crowding, indoor noise and housing quality as well as psychological effects such as family turmoil, family separation and exposure to violence and demonstrated, perhaps unsurprisingly, some of the negative impacts that high negative instances of these factors could have. However, the findings went a step further in suggesting that instances of multiple factors had a cumulative negative effect on wellbeing – findings that are supported by the work of eminent UK child psychologist Sir Michael L. Rutter.

Thus, Evans concluded that the reason that childhood poverty is bad for children is a “toxic” coalescence between the social and physical environment which can produce this cumulative confluence of multiple risks or ‘stressors’ which effect wellbeing in the short term, an effect which, in fact, causes a deterioration of health and well being beyond childhood.

A podcast of Prof. Evans' presentation is available to listen to here. The session was chaired by Christopher Spencer.