Methods: We used the ECLS-K1998-99, a longitudinal dataset following a nationally representative cohort of children from kindergarten in Fall1998 (N ≈ 21,260). We examined data from Kindergarten, First-, Third-, and Fifth-grade. The study uses household income to define poverty corresponding to the U.S. federal poverty threshold. Multiple dimensions of poverty were examined including depth (not-poor, near-poor, poor, and extreme poor), volatility (direction of income change between waves), and duration (times of poverty exposure). Latent class analysis (LCA) was conducted to identify underlying groups of children with similar poverty experiences based on the three dimensions. Growth-curve analysis was then conducted to examine associations between latent poverty patterns and child socioemotional trajectories (i.e., teacher-reported externalizing and internalizing behaviors) from kindergarten to fifth-grade. A rich set of sociodemographic characteristics was considered in growth-curve analysis.
Results: The LCA identifies a six-class solution: a never-poor class (45%) with family income above 200% of the federal poverty line for all four waves, an always near-poor class (13%) that was consistently above 100% but below 200% of the poverty line, a class (7%) who had been cycling between not-poor and near-poor conditions, a class (8%) with fluctuations between near-poor and poor, an always poor class (14%) chronically below 100% but above 50% of the poverty line, and an always extreme-poor class (15%) below 50% of the poverty line at all times.
The growth-curve results indicate significant between-group differences on socioemotional trajectories. Compared to socioeconomically advantaged children (reference group, children who were never poor), children who were cycling between near-poor and poor, always poor, or always extreme-poor were reported worse socioemotional behaviors by teachers. These children also lagged behind children who were never poor with significantly worse rates of change over time. Notably, children who were cycling between near-poor and poor conditions had significantly worse, if not the worst, rate of change on internalizing and externalizing behaviors among all the latent poverty groups.
Conclusions and Implications: The study highlights the complexities of poverty in shaping children’s socioemotional well-being. It speaks to the importance of stability and consistency for children’s socioemotional development during early school years. Understanding the various patterns of economic deprivation can help achieve the right mix of policies and programs for socioeconomically disadvantaged children and families.