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Poor children in U.S. face daunting cluster of environmental inequities, which could affect their future as adults, says Cornell psychologist

ITHACA, N.Y. -- At least two dozen physical and psychosocial environmental risk factors can profoundly compromise the health and welfare of children in low-income families in the United States and could affect a child's life as an adult, says a noted Cornell University environmental and developmental psychologist.

"Low-income children are disproportionately exposed to a daunting array of adverse social and physical environmental conditions," says Gary Evans, a professor of design and environmental analysis and of human development in Cornell's College of Human Ecology. "The fact that so many environmental risk factors cluster in the environments of low-income children exacerbates their effects and most likely have debilitating long-term effects on the physical, socio-emotional and cognitive development of children living in poverty."

Evans is an international expert on how the physical environment -- noise, crowding, housing quality and air pollution -- can affect human health and well-being. He reviewed almost 200 studies to document the environment of childhood poverty in the current issue of American Psychologist (Vol. 59:2, 77-92, 2004).

Evans details how children in poorer families, compared with children from more affluent backgrounds, suffer from greater family turmoil, violence, instability, nonresponsive parenting, smaller social networks and few enrichment opportunities. They live, he finds, in more polluted and crowded environments that are noisier and inferior in more dangerous neighborhoods with poorer services, more crime and traffic, and fewer elements of nature. These children also are more likely to attend schools and day-care facilities that are inadequate; they tend to read less, have fewer books at home, use libraries less often and spend more time watching television than their middle-income counterparts. "These risk factors aren't randomly distributed but co-occur much more frequently in the environments of low-income children," says Evans, noting that researchers typically look at just one risk factor at a time. "In psychology, we tend to treat poverty and socioeconomic class as noise in data that needs to be controlled for. Yet, poverty is such a powerful influence that it should not be ignored -- it's a dynamic part of the system."

Public policy also tends to consider just one "magic bullet" at a time, Evans says. Although the health consequences of exposure to one environmental risk factor, such as poor air, water or crowding, are typically modest, the cumulative effect of multiple-risk exposures is highly significant.

"To make a difference, we need to take a broader perspective for intervention. When we look at the medical needs of low-income children, for example, we have to look at their housing. When we observe problems in their education, we need to also look at their health and health care to consider how they impact a child's learning," Evans concludes.

The research was supported, in part, by the W.T. Grant Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Network on Socioeconomic Status and Health, the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, and Cornell's New York State Agricultural Experiment Station in Geneva, N.Y.

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