V. The Effect of Poverty and Neighborhood Conditions
Although the family may be the primary agent of socialization for children, it does not exist in a vacuum. Families are embedded in a broader social environment that can operate to either enhance or undermine parental effectiveness. A family’s ability to effectively perform its socialization function is strongly affected by the social context in which it is embedded. This context consists of social institutions such as the economy, the polity, the church, and the neighborhood or community. The values, policies, and integrity of these social systems necessarily influence the functioning and efficacy of families.
Unfortunately, there is strong evidence that children who grow up in poor families are at increased risk for a variety of negative developmental outcomes, including conduct problems and delinquency. Past research indicates that poverty tends to have a disruptive effect on quality of parenting, and this is one of the major reasons that poverty increases a child’s chances of deviant behavior. Several studies have reported that economically stressed parents provide less support and monitoring and higher levels of inconsistent and harsh discipline than parents who are more affluent (Brody et al., 2001; Conger et al., 1992; R. L. Simons &Associates, 1996). There appear to be several reasons why financial hardship has a deleterious effect on parental behavior.
At least in part, the less effective parenting demonstrated by poor parents is a consequence of their being preoccupied and consumed with the challenges and stresses of everyday life. Given these concerns, they are often minimally involved in the parenting role until serious or flagrant child misbehavior jars them into action. Such transgressions are likely to demand a harsh response, so that the pattern of parenting displayed is inconsistent and explosive.
The psychological distress associated with economic hardship also increases the chances of ineffective parenting. Economic strain is apt to foster an irritable, aggressive psychological state that operates to decrease warmth and increase hostility toward others, including one’s children. Finally, depressed parents are more likely than nondistressed parents to be dissatisfied with social relationships, including the relationships with their children. Several studies have reported, for example, that depressed mothers tend to perceive their children as difficult, and parents are more likely to engage in harsh or punitive parenting when they perceive their children as difficult.
Thus, past research suggests several ways in which the preoccupation and psychological distress that accompany financial hardship tend to decrease warmth and monitoring while increasing inconsistency and hostility. As mentioned in previous sections, this approach to parenting places a child at risk for conduct problems and delinquent behavior.