Considerable research evidence links childhood experiences of poverty to harmful effects on physical and mental health, social and behavioral functioning, and cognitive, academic, and educational outcomes. Yet little is known about how children and their parents view their daily experiences of living in poverty and their interactions with social safety net programs, or how they perceive wealth, poverty, and economic inequality.

To address this gap, the Office of Planning, Research, and Evaluation in the Administration for Children and Families (ACF), U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, contracted with MEF Associates to study the perspectives of children and their parents who experience poverty. MDRC, a subcontractor to MEF, conducted the study in partnership with MEF.

The Childhood and Family Experiences Study seeks to understand how children, adolescents, and parents perceive and experience poverty. Because ACF administers social safety net programs, such as TANF, it seeks to better understand the experiences of families who participate in these programs and receive services. It is also interested in learning more about the perspectives of those who may be eligible for services but do not receive them.

Key Findings and Highlights

  • Parents valued and recognized the important role that public assistance benefits played in easing their family’s experiences of material hardship.
  • Children’s and adolescents’ understanding of the benefits the family received was limited, except for SNAP benefits.
  • Parents worried about but were resourceful in dealing with economic hardship. They placed a priority on basic needs such as rent and food, and tried to meet their children’s needs and wants.
  • Children and adolescents were aware that their families struggled financially and could not always afford to meet all of their needs and wants. They knew that their parents worried about finances, but they did not describe their families as being “poor.”
  • Children and adolescents described poverty as having few material possessions and difficult circumstances, but they did not refer to their own circumstances when describing what it means to be poor. They described wealth as an abundance of material possessions and access to resources and opportunities, and the middle class as “normal.”

Read the full article about family poverty by Rashmita Mistry at MDRC.