Theory & Science (2007)

ISSN: 1527-5558

A Triarchic Model of Poverty

Tommy M. Phillips1
Department of Family and Consumer Sciences
Jacksonville State University
Electronic Mail:


A triarchic model of poverty is proposed to account for the effects of economic impoverishment on development. According to this model, poverty constitutes a developmental context, and three poverty-related factors -- social stigma/marginalization, limitations in opportunity structure, and stress -- acting individually or in concert with either or both of the other factors, may conspire to place poor children and youth on different developmental trajectories than non-poor children and youth.


Development does not occur in a vacuum, but rather is a process embedded in context (Bronfenbrenner, 1986). Understanding development, therefore, necessitates understanding the contexts in which it occurs. Poverty constitutes a context of development (DeHaan & MacDermid, 1996) that influences what transpires in and between lower-level contexts and systems, ultimately exerting a pervasive influence on individual development. To use Bronfenbrenner's (1986) terminology, poverty can be viewed as a macrosystem that affects development by influencing the nature of all lower-level systems (e.g., microsystems, mesosystems), along with the interactions within and between those systems.

Two important issues that must be considered in any analysis of the effects of poverty include the timing of the poverty experience (Brooks-Gunn & Duncan, 1997; Guo, 1998) and whether the poverty experience is chronic or transitory (Brooks-Gunn & Duncan, 1997; Guo, 1998; McLoyd, 1998). Generally speaking, childhood poverty results in worse outcomes than poverty experienced later in life (Brooks-Gunn, 1997). At the same time, chronic poverty is associated with more detrimental effects than temporary poverty (Brooks-Gunn & Duncan, 1997; Guo, 1998; McLoyd, 1998). In this paper, "poverty" refers to a persistent childhood poverty experience.

In developed nations, while poverty is a chronic condition for some, it is a transitory condition for most. In the United States for instance, the median poverty spell lasts 4.5 months, and only about 5% of the population can be described as chronically poor, i.e., experiencing poverty spells lasting at least 24 months (Naifeh, 1998). Yet when the experience of poverty is chronic, it has deleterious effects on development. In developing countries, where poverty rates eclipse those of nations such as the United States, the effects of poverty may be amplified.

Not only does it make conceptual sense to postulate that growing up in an environment characterized by impoverishment will have a profound effect upon development, but research has established a clear link between persistent poverty and undesirable developmental outcomes. For instance, studies indicate that poor children suffer from emotional and behavioral problems more than do children who are not poor (Brooks-Gunn & Duncan, 1997). McLeod and Shanahan (1996) found persistent poverty to be positively correlated with depression and antisocial behavior, with the correlation between years spent in poverty and antisocial behavior being especially pronounced. In terms of psychosocial adjustment, Bolger, Patterson, Thompson, and Kuperschmidt (1995) found that subjects who experienced persistent poverty were more likely than subjects not experiencing economic hardship to have problems in peer relations, display conduct problems at school, and report low self-esteem. At the same time, persistent poverty has been linked to a higher involvement in delinquency (Jarjoura, Triplett, & Brinker, 2002). Finally, research has found that poverty predicts lower scores on tests of intelligence and cognitive functioning, as well as lower levels of academic achievement (McLoyd, 1998).

Although the list above is by no means exhaustive, it does make vividly apparent the fact that poverty has a pronounced impact on developmental processes and outcomes. At this point in time, that poverty can have an undesirable influence on development is not in doubt. The poverty-development nexus has been firmly established by empirical research. What is needed, however, is an adequate theory of exactly how poverty affects developmental processes.

In attempting to explain poverty’s effects on identity formation, Phillips and Pittman (2003) presented a model in which it was conjectured that poverty circumscribes identity development via three mechanisms: Stigmatization/marginalization of the poor by larger society, limitations in opportunity structure, and chronic and excessive stress. Upon reflection, the realization was achieved that the model could be applied to poverty’s effects on development in general (see Figure 1), rather than identity formation exclusively. This article, therefore, represents a broadening of the Phillips-Pittman (2003) model and proposes that those same three poverty-related factors may launch chronically poor youth on developmental trajectories that diverge substantively from those of their non-poor age mates.

Figure 1. Triarchic Model of Poverty.
Note: Straight arrows indicate direct effects; double arrows indicate possible interactive effects.


Poor children are at increased risk of receiving disparaging self-relevant information from the social environment, with poverty being viewed by many as the product of individual shortcomings and moral deficiencies rather than societal factors (Chafel, 1997). In many instances, poor people are seen as being personally responsible for their situation in life (Cozzarelli, Wilkinson, & Tagler, 2001), a view that, of course, does little to promote a sympathetic view of those living in poverty. Living in poverty involves being stigmatized and marginalized (Figueira-McDonough, 1998), stereotyped negatively (Cozzarelli et al., 2001), and excluded (Lott, 2002) by the non-poor segment of society. In essence, the poor are viewed largely as inferior (even less than human to a certain extent), consigned to a "them" or "out-group" status, and then treated accordingly (Lott, 2002).

Children living in poverty are quite cognizant of the unflattering nature of societal messages regarding the poor (Weinger, 1998). As a consequence, poor children may experience feelings of shame and embarrassment (Greenlee and Lantz, 1993) and have trouble viewing themselves in a positive light (Weinger, 1998).

Schools also play a central role in the stigmatization and marginalization of the poor. Although promoted as a bastion of egalitarianism where one's socioeconomic status means little and hard work and merit mean everything, the school environment is actually where poor children are exposed to a great deal of disparaging social input and feedback. Poor children and non-poor children face discrepant experiences at school. According to McLoyd (1998), most teachers grow up in middle-class homes, and as a result, are prone to class-based biases against low-income students. McLoyd (1998) reports that teachers of low-income students tend to perceive such pupils less positively, have lower achievement expectations for them, provide the students with less positive attention and fewer learning opportunities, as well as less positive reinforcement for instances of good performance. Even punishment at school varies by social class, with low-income youth reporting more penalties than high-income adolescents for similar infractions and penalties that are more severe, disproportionate to offenses, and humiliating in nature (Brantlinger, 1991).

It is proposed that receiving derogatory information about oneself and one's social class is not conducive to psychological health, and that the internalization of such information by the individual could be expected to contribute to the formation of a negative self-concept. It is, after all, difficult to see oneself in a positive light when a preponderance of the self-relevant social input one is receiving from the environment is disparaging in nature. Being stigmatized and marginalized by larger society also has the potential to result in internalizing (e.g., depression) or externalizing (e.g., acting out, aggression, anger) behaviors. Another possibility is that the poor child will shape his/her identity around the disparaging societal messages about the poor, either coming to see himself or herself as morally deficient and/or personally flawed in some way or adopting what Erikson (1980) referred to as a negative identity (i.e., an identity based on everything that has been presented to one as undesirable, dangerous, wrong, or "bad").


The nature of the opportunities available to individuals is another factor that must be taken into account when examining potential effects of poverty on development. The notion of a level playing field may be largely mythical, unsubstantiated by the reality of the relationship between socioeconomic background and opportunity structure. Believing that the child of the doctor who earns six figures and the child of the minimum wage-earning custodian who cleans the doctor's office occupy the same level playing field is naïve at best and delusional at worst.

Socioeconomic status is a major determinant of whether the opportunity structure one encounters is characterized by abundant choices or circumscribed possibilities. Poverty is associated with limitations in opportunity structures and life chances (Figueira-McDonough, 1998; Massey et al., 1991; Powers, 1996), and discrepant opportunity structures stemming from socioeconomic differences can result in poor children embarking down developmental paths that are significantly different from the paths taken by their non-poor counterparts.

The concept of ascribed status (Parsons & Shils, 1967) is highly relevant here. Children are poor by sheer "accidents" of birth (i.e., they just happened to be born to poor parents). However, by virtue of the circumstances of their births, as soon as poor children come into the world, predetermined (or ascribed) statuses are bestowed upon them-- statuses that will have momentous bearing on the nature of the opportunities available to them. After all, as Massey, Gross, and Eggers (1991) point out, an individual's structural position in society has important implications for the benefits and opportunities received by the individual. Rojewski and Yang (1997) concur, noting that socioeconomic status influences development and life decisions by opening and closing opportunities. The relationship between status and opportunity is summarized nicely by Massey et al. (1991) who write, "Although people function as independent actors, the possibilities they face, and the decisions they make are inevitably constrained by the positions they occupy in the social order" (p. 397).

As was the case with disparaging societal messages regarding the poor, children living in poverty are not oblivious to the constrained nature of the opportunities available to them. This awareness of limited opportunities is manifested in the lower career aspirations (Cook, Church, Ajanaku, Kim, & Cohen, 1996; Rojewski & Yang, 1997) and lower educational aspirations (Smith-Maddox, 1999) reported by many poor youth. Perhaps, as Figueira-McDonough (1998) suggests, these lowered aspirations among poor youth result from realistic appraisals of available opportunities, along with conscious awareness of the limited lives of the adults around them. If all of the people in a child's proximal environment have low-paying, low status occupations, what is there to suggest to the child that he or she should expect anything more or that life has more to offer?

Fatalism (Lewis, 1966), hopelessness (Figueira-McDonough, 1998), and disillusionment (Guo, 1998) are also common among poor children and adolescents, indicating perhaps a sort of psychological capitulation in the face of limited opportunities (basically, the child or adolescent accepting that "This is my lot in life."). In addition to these outcomes, it could be speculated that development in a context characterized by limitations might play a part in internalizing (e.g., depression stemming from demoralization) or externalizing (e.g., lashing out or anger stemming from frustration and perceived injustice) behaviors, as well as a failure to achieve one's full potential and the adoption of a negative self-concept.


The final factor to be considered in the triarchic model of poverty is stress. Poverty involves exposure to multiple stressors that can have an undesirable influence on development (Chilman, 1991). Economic deprivation entails stressful life events and chronic strains (Eamon, 2001). Compared to their non-poor counterparts, poor children encounter more family turmoil, violence, instability/unpredictability in routines of daily living, chaos, and surroundings that are noisier, more crowded, and more frenetic (Evans, Gonnella, Marcynyszyn, Gentile, & Slapekar, 2005; Evans, 2004). Exposure to such a high (and chronic) degree of stress is of great concern because, as McLoyd (1998) points out, the coping resources of poor children and youth may be outstripped by the demands placed on them by excessive stress.

Much of the stress associated with poverty is manifested in family dynamics. Financial stress is associated with decreased family and marital satisfaction (Chilman, 1991), marital conflict, discord, separation, and divorce (Elder and Caspi, 1988), harsh, inconsistent discipline (Brooks-Gunn & Duncan, 1997), and lower-quality parent-child interaction (Brooks-Gunn & Duncan, 1997; Chilman, 1991; Conger, Conger, Elder, Lorenz, Simons, & Whitbeck, 1992; Duncan, Brooks-Gunn, Yeung, & Smith, 1998; Elder & Caspi, 1988; McLoyd, 1998). Basically, financial stress is related to family and/or relationship stress which, ultimately, is experienced as individual stress.

In essence, a context characterized by exposure to chronic and multiple stresses is not conducive to psychological well-being or healthy child development and might be anticipated to result in a depletion of the poor child's motivational resources over time, as well as the emergence of various manifestations of socioemotional maladjustment such as depression, anxiety, and self-medication in the form of substance abuse.


While the model proposed here is general, it does represent a meaningful and sincere attempt to account for how chronic poverty might place poor children on life trajectories that differ from the trajectories of children not living in poverty. Social stigma/marginalization, limitations in opportunity structure, and excessive stress, acting individually or in concert with the other factors, may conspire to place poor children and youth on different developmental trajectories than non-poor children and youth. Whether these factors have an individual, additive, or interactive influence remains to be determined by future research.

The variables featured in the model presented here are by no means novel. Their relationships to poverty have been discussed, researched, and confirmed by previous scholars. However, to my knowledge, they have never been included in a single model before. It is hoped that the model proposed in this paper will stimulate renewed discourse and greater interest regarding the specific mechanisms by which poverty affects development by providing a new way of framing how people look at and think about poverty. Much is known about the sequelae of poverty. We know that poverty represents a developmental risk factor. What we still do not understand fully are the specific processes and pathways involved or exactly how poverty results in certain outcomes.

To close on an optimistic, hopeful note, the reader is reminded that not all children who experience poverty also experience negative developmental and life outcomes and is encouraged to examine the literature on resilience for greater insights into why some children emerge relatively unscathed and do just fine in life despite having lived in poverty.

End Notes

1. Department of Family and Consumer Sciences
Jacksonville State University
Jacksonville, AL 36265
Telephone Number: (256) 782-5184
Electronic Mail:


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