Poor beginnings, poor health: A 30-year exploration of socioeconomic position and health

Kathleen Anne Foley, University of Pennsylvania


While the inverse relationship between socioeconomic position and poor health is well-established we know little about whether the timing of early life poverty matters to adult health. Understanding whether poverty has greater effects on health status at particular stages of the lifecourse will not only help guide public policy efforts at alleviating the effects of poverty, but may also provide clues as to the particular pathways through which socioeconomic position shapes health over the lifecourse. Drawing on a thirty-year study of youth born to teenage mothers, and thus into social and economic disadvantage, I trace the socioeconomic trajectories of the young men and women from birth through young adulthood. This small but rich study allows an indepth look at whether and how the timing of poverty in early life impacts on health risk behaviors, educational attainment and adult health status. The results show that childhood poverty is most important to educational attainment, late adolescent poverty and educational attainment more strongly shape health risk behaviors and young adult poverty has the greatest relevance for adult health status. The differences in the timing of these effects suggest that socioeconomic position operates via diverse routes in childhood, adolescence and adulthood to influence adult health. While childhood poverty appears to influence psychosocial and emotional well-being factors that are related to educational attainment in late adolescence, adolescent poverty seems to influence risk behaviors via neighborhood conditions and psychosocial resources related to education. These findings further highlight the pivotal role of educational attainment in linking the social pathways from childhood socioeconomic position to adult risk behaviors and health status. Even after accounting for numerous other early life and young adult factors, an individual's educational attainment and psychological well-being stand out two of the most important contributors to adult health. Given the increasing trends in dropping out of high school among African-american youth, this study provides evidence that sound educational policy will also make good health policy.

Subject Area

Demographics|Welfare|Public health

Recommended Citation

Foley, Kathleen Anne, "Poor beginnings, poor health: A 30-year exploration of socioeconomic position and health" (2000). Dissertations available from ProQuest. AAI9976419.