Population Health

Poverty and childhood health

Early life experiences — positive and negative — can shape a person’s lifelong health and well-being.

Childhood poverty is one of those negative experiences with lasting consequences into adulthood, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. Research shows that children who live in poverty, especially at a young age or for an extended period, have worse physical and mental health outcomes as adults. That’s because they’re often exposed to more adversity and stress at a crucial developmental stage, and they’re less likely to have access to comprehensive health care, good nutrition, safe neighborhoods and high-quality preschool education.

In the United States, nearly 12 million children are living in poverty, a number that has increased during the global pandemic. Here are a few examples of how University of Washington faculty and staff are working to better understand how childhood poverty shapes a person’s health — and help address the root causes of socioeconomic inequities.

  • Researchers at the UW Center for Child & Family Well-Being are studying the long-term mental health effects of childhood adversity and inequity. Their research examines adversity on multiple levels, including environmental hazards such as air pollution, community-level exposure to crime, family financial strain and other factors. The goal is to develop a comprehensive model to understand how adversity impacts children’s mental health.
  • Partners for Our Children, an independent research center in the UW School of Social Work, collaborates with public and private sector organizations to help vulnerable children and families in the child welfare system. Their research and data analysis informs policies and practices in Washington state and across the nation.
  • Supported by a UW Population Health Initiative pilot research grant, a faculty-led research team is studying how to use smartphone tools to provide culturally relevant health recommendations for parents of young children. The research team is collaborating with King County parents of children aged 0–5 from racially and economically marginalized groups.
  • UW Professor Donald L. Chi is a pediatric dentist working to understand and reduce inequalities in children’s oral health. One of his current research projects is studying how a community health program can help Yup’ik children in the Yukon-Kuskokwim (YK) Delta region of Alaska to drink less sugary drinks and have fewer cavities. Tooth decay has lifelong health consequences.
  • The UW’s School of Nursing is partnering with King County on the Best Starts for Kids initiative, which invests in early intervention and prevention for children, youth, families and communities at risk for chronic diseases. Nursing graduate students work with the county’s health department by generating and translating research to guide the initiative’s efforts.

Three children play with wood blocks outdoors. In the background is the text 'A future where every child get the building blocks for a healthy start' in black capital letters.

Help improve health and well-being worldwide

We’re working to address the factors and inequities that impact how long and how well we all live. You can support this vital work by making a donation to the Population Health Initiative.