Experiences of Parents and Children Living in Poverty

A Review of the Qualitative Literature

By Janet Quint, Katherine M. Griffin, Jennie Kaufman, Patrick Landers

One in five American children — 14.5 million — live in poverty, with even higher proportions among black and Hispanic children and in rural areas. While the scholarly literature on families experiencing poverty is sizable, relatively little attention has been paid to how children describe what it is like to be poor, their thoughts and feelings about their economic status, and the roles that they see benefit programs playing in their lives.

This literature review is part of the Understanding Poverty: Childhood and Family Experiences study sponsored by the Office of Planning, Research, and Evaluation in the Administration for Children and Families, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, which will involve in-depth interviews with members of about 30 low-income families, including children ranging in age from 7 to 17 and their parents or other caregivers, across three sites. The review summarizes the qualitative literature as it applies to the following research questions: (1) What are children’s experiences and perceptions of poverty and benefit receipt? (2) What are parents’ perceptions of poverty and benefit receipt, including interactions with public assistance offices and workers? (3) How do parents and children discuss their families’ economic circumstances?

Key Findings

  • Material deprivation is a fundamental aspect of children’s experiences with poverty; they also feel stigma. Children talked about lacking food, clothing, and school supplies. Even very young children are aware of broad distinctions between rich and poor; they feel the stigma attached to going without both essentials and status symbols and receiving public benefits. They worry about living in unsafe neighborhoods and their parents’ well-being, and they value social support from family, friends, teachers, and others.
  • Parents living in poverty worry about fulfilling children’s needs and recognize both the value and the drawbacks of public benefits. They express concern about being unable to provide both basic needs and culturally enriching activities, and they say the stresses of poverty affect their parenting abilities. Parents appreciate the financial support of public assistance but sometimes feel it is insufficient, and they see downsides in some program rules, such as strict work requirements. Parents also feel stigma because of their status as welfare recipients.
  • Families vary in their discussion of economic circumstances. Parents with low incomes, like other parents, have personal guidelines about which aspects of household finances to discuss with their children. Many low-income parents seek to shield their children — especially younger ones — from awareness of economic hardship, although major events, such as divorce or homelessness, often prompt discussions. Some children are protective of their parents and avoid asking for things that they know their parents cannot give them.
Quint, Janet, Katherine M. Griffin, Jennie Kaufman, and Patrick Landers. 2018. Experiences of Parents and Children Living in Poverty. New York: MDRC.