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13. Young Children's Exposure to Risk Factors

Family risk factors such as low parental education, unemployment, adolescent parenting and residential mobility can hinder child development. Combined with poverty, the effects are more severe. When poor families face such risk factors, they are less able to get resources to mitigate the effects on their family’s physical and mental health. These experiences—often referred to as adverse childhood experiences—can shape not only a child’s cognitive and emotional development, but his or her long-term physical health as well.  A growing body of evidence now links early-childhood adversity to increased risk of a range of adult health problems, including diabetes, hypertension, stroke, obesity and some forms of cancer. According to the National Center for Children in Poverty, children living in poverty with three or more risk factors are exceptionally vulnerable. 

Risk factors increase the likelihood that young children will experience high levels of stress. Frequent stress on a child, without adequate support and protection from the adults in their life, results in “toxic stress”—strong, frequent, and/or prolonged adversity that hinders the development of young children's brain architecture. Such stress has long-lasting effects. 

What Can the Data Tell Us?

Data from National Center for Children in Poverty (NCCP) (Table 22) shows the percentage of children nationally and by state experiencing poverty and specific risk factors. NCCP risk factors are: households without English speakers; low education levels of parents; residential mobility; and households including a large family, single parent, teen mother and/or nonemployed parent(s). These risk factors were chosen because they are known to increase the chances of poor health, and adverse education and developmental outcomes for young children.

Nationally, only four in ten (39 percent) young children live in families with no risk factors, and one in five live in families with three or more risk factors. Understanding the effects of poverty and risk factors can help guide policies that can improve outcomes for vulnerable children.

Table 22. Percentage of children under 6 by number of risk factors present, U.S. and states, 2012