University of Wisconsin–Madison

Consensus Measures of Child Poverty: Getting Researchers on the Same Page

Kindergarteners experience hands-on learning and exploration during a UW–Madison Insect Ambassadors outreach program. Photo by: Jeff Miller
Recognition of negative outcomes associated with child poverty has led scholars to propose that all child poverty studies include the same core questions, in order to strengthen findings and better inform policy. Photo by: Jeff Miller


March | No. 3-2020

Childhood poverty is common. Nearly 1 in 5 children in the United States live in a household whose income is below the official federal poverty line, and more than 2 in 5 children live in poor or near-poor households.

Recognizing the broad and enduring effects of poverty on child development, the American Academy of Pediatrics recently added poverty and child health to its Agenda for Children.[1]

Although the negative outcomes associated with child poverty are well-documented, the mechanisms causing the harm, possible individual differences in susceptibility, and potential mediating factors associated with better and worse child outcomes are not well understood. To reach the level of certainty needed to put ideas into practice at the policy level, researchers must build a more robust body of evidence.

However, studies often differ in how poverty and/or socioeconomic status are measured, making it difficult to contrast and reconcile findings across studies. Establishing common measures of socioeconomic status, family income, and poverty could allow direct comparisons between studies.

For this purpose, scholars Seth Pollak and Barbara Wolfe propose a set of 12 core questions that can be easily integrated into studies of children’s development, and that are adaptable for international comparisons.

Use of these common measures will help researchers to (a) use data from more than one sample to better test their hypothesis; (b) understand how differences in samples could lead to variations in results across studies; and (c) if this facilitates data sharing, also expand the amount of data available for research with little additional cost.

To learn more, see the open access article: Seth D. Pollak and Barbara L. Wolfe, 2020, Maximizing Research on the Adverse Effects of Child Poverty Through Consensus Measures, Developmental Science.

Why use consensus measures?
Increasing standardization across child poverty studies by collecting strong data that characterize children’s economic environments will:
  • identify new ways that research can be used to understand more about the basic science of how environments affect children’s development;
  • help researchers and policymakers develop more effective antipoverty policies in response to these insights; and
  • generate a stronger basis for researchers to communicate relevant findings to policymakers.
Source: Pollak and Wolfe, Maximizing Research on the Adverse Effects of Child Poverty Through Consensus Measures.


Baby's First Years logo.

Baby’s First Years Study

Baby’s First Years is a groundbreaking study of the causal impact of monthly, unconditional cash gifts to low-income mothers and their children in the first 3 years of the child’s life. The study will identify whether reducing poverty can affect early childhood development and the family processes that support children’s development. The findings may provide the strong, causal evidence on which policymakers can base antipoverty efforts.

Kids Count Data Book, Annie E. Casey Foundation

The Annie E. Casey Foundation releases an annual KIDS COUNT® Data Book that tracks trends in child well-being. It is shared with local, state, and national leaders to provide a statistical snapshot of child well-being. The 2019 report notes the following:

  • More parents are financially stable and living without burdensome housing costs;
  • More teens are graduating from high school and delaying parenthood; and
  • Access to children’s health insurance has increased compared to just seven years ago.

But it is not all good news. The report also notes:

  • The risk of babies being born at a low weight continues to rise;
  • Racial inequities remain systemic and stubbornly persistent; and
  • Twelve percent of kids across the country are still growing up in areas of concentrated poverty.
Seth PollakBarbara Wolfe
Seth Pollak, College of Letters & Science Distinguished Professor of Psychology; Director, Child Emotion Lab; IRP Affiliate
Barbara Wolfe, Richard A. Easterlin Professor of Economics, Public Affairs, and Population Health Sciences; Former Director of IRP and the La Follette School of Public Affairs; IRP Affiliate
Other Research
Journal Article
Brito, N. H., & Noble, K. G. (2014). Socioeconomic status and structural brain development. Frontiers in Neuroscience, 8, 276.
Birn, R. M., Roeber, B. J., & Pollak, S. D. (2017). Early childhood stress exposure, reward pathways, and adult decision making. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 114, 13549–13554.
Brooks‐Gunn, J., & Duncan, G. J. (1997). The effects of poverty on children. The Future of Children, 7(2), 55–71.
Duncan, G. J., Brooks‐Gunn, J., & Klebanov, P. K. (1994). Economic deprivation and early childhood development. Child Development, 65(2), 296–318.
Duncan, G. J., & Magnuson, K. (2012). Socioeconomic status and cognitive functioning: Moving from correlation to causation. Wires Cognitive Science, 3(3), 377–386.
Duncan, G. J., Magnuson, K., & Votruba‐Drzal, E. (2017). Moving beyond correlations in assessing the consequences of poverty. Annual Review of Psychology, 68, 413–434.
Fletcher, J., & Wolfe, B. (2014). Increasing our understanding of the health‐income gradient in children. Health Economics, 23(4), 473–486.
Hair, N. L., Hanson, J. L., Wolfe, B. L., & Pollak, S. D. (2015). Association of child poverty, brain development, and academic achievement. JAMA Pediatrics, 169(9), 822–829.
Haveman, R., & Wolfe, B. (1995). The determinants of children’s attainments: A review of methods and findings. Journal of Economic Literature, 33, 1829–1878.
Pollak, S. D., & Wolfe, B. (in press). How developmental neuroscience can help address the problem of child poverty. Development & Psychopathology.
Short, K. S. (2016). Child poverty: Definition and measurement. Academic Pediatrics, 16(3), S46–S51.
Working Paper
Pollak, S. D., & Wolfe, B. (2020, March). How developmental neuroscience can help address the problem of child poverty. NBER Working Paper No. 26842.


[1] See AAP Agenda for Children.

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