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Poverty and Its Effect on Mexican American Adolescents

Levi Hawes
Salt Lake Community College

Poverty and Its Effect on Mexican American Adolescents

There are many things in the lives of Mexican American adolescents that effect their

development as members of society, as students, and the person they will become in adulthood.

Poverty is among the most common adversities that adolescents face and is especially prevalent

in Mexican American families. According to the NCCP (National Center for Children in

Poverty) in 2014, about 15 million children in the United States – 21% of all children – live in

families with incomes lower than the federal poverty threshold (about $25,000 per year).

However, their research shows that families need an income of about double that amount to

cover basic expenses. Based on those findings about 43% of children live in low income

families. (NCCP, 2014)

Though it was difficult to find data specific to Mexican-American Adolescents related to

how poverty affects them, I was able to find research related to how poverty affects all

adolescents. Through my research, I plan to explore the many ways in which poverty and low

socioeconomic conditions effect adolescents in the Mexican American community. I will be

discussing several aspects of the lives of adolescents that are affected by poverty; among which

are emotional development, social development, physical health, education, and sexual activity. I

will then present a strategy for addressing the issue and bringing about needed change in this


Mexican American adolescents that come from low-income families are more likely to

struggle with emotional health problems than their more affluent peers. They can often suffer

from “depression, low self-esteem and a sense of powerlessness when compared to their peers

from higher-income households.” (Hinders, n.d.). A great deal of stress can be caused by

financial pressures that come with living in low socioeconomic conditions. Stress can lead young

adults to experience feelings of aggression, isolation, deviance, and embarrassment among peers.

These emotional responses to poverty lead to issues in social development as well as educational


Family income has a large impact on the quality of the neighborhoods and schools that

children and adolescents will spend their time. Research done by Jose Escarce for Health

Services Research shows that “high-poverty neighborhoods have lower availability of high-

quality public and private services such as parks, child care centers and preschools, community

centers, and health care providers, as well as fewer social supports and less effective social

networks” (Escarce, 2003). The same study also found a correlation between high-poverty

neighborhoods and high crime rates, street violence, and availability of illegal drugs. These

characteristics can have negative consequences for adolescents in their cognitive skills,

socialization, and academic success among other things.

Teenagers raised in poverty often have difficulty socializing because their parents may

need to move often to find housing. This disrupts social interactions of teens with peers both in

school as well is in the community (Hinders, n.d.). Teens also may feel uncomfortable or

embarrassed when spending time with others because they can’t attend certain social events

because of a lack of money (Moore, 2013). Though they may seem trivial, these issues can lead

to bigger social or emotional issues.

Nutrition and health are very necessary for physical and mental development during

teenage years. Adolescents who live in poverty often don’t have access to nutritious foods,

adequate healthcare or parental monitoring of eating habits (Moore, 2013). Access to health care

through health insurance is a major factor in an adolescent’s health. “The association between

low income, on one hand, and reduced access to health care and worse health, on the other,

represents just one manifestation of the effect of socioeconomic status on the life chances of

adolescents.” (Escarce, 2003).

Adolescents are constantly adapting to stress, the amount of work the body goes through

to adapt to that stress is referred to as “Allostatic load”. The higher the load, the bigger the

impact on an individual’s overall health. Natalie Troxel and Paul Hastings of the Center for

Poverty Research at the University of California, Davis, did a study on the affect the Allostatic

load can have on an adolescent. Regarding how poverty affected the load, they stated “Youths

raised in neighborhoods with lower median incomes and higher unemployment and poverty rates

showed higher degrees of allostatic load in adulthood.” (Troxel and Hastings, n.d.). Their study

shows not only the impact that high-poverty lives have on the health of adolescents, but that it

can also effect individuals into adulthood.

Academics and educational achievement are also affected by an adolescent’s

socioeconomic status. Staying in school and the quality of education that adolescents receive are

two of the educational factors most effected by poverty. Many Mexican American adolescents,

especially older males, feel forced to drop out of school to help contribute to the household by

working or looking after younger siblings. (Moore, 2013). Chronic stress associated with poverty

can make it difficult for teens to excel in school because it may impair attention and

concentration. (Hinders, n.d.). Lack of success in academics or spending time with peers who are

dropouts can influence Mexican American students who don’t have academic support at home,

usually because parents are absent during important at home school oriented hours.

The quality of education provided is influenced by the level of poverty in which students

live. “Due to residential stratification and segregation, low-income students usually attend

schools with lower funding levels, which result in reduced availability of textbooks and other

instructional materials, laboratory equipment, library books, and other educational resources.”

(Escarce, 2003). Students in these conditions have reduced achievement and motivation and a

much higher chance of educational failure. These characteristics in schools combined with low

levels of parental involvement have serious consequences on an adolescent’s education.

The age at which adolescents begin to engage in sexual activity, as well as the level of

safety at which they practice sex are negatively affected in high-poverty families. In an article

published by Iowa State University, a report was made about research done in 1999 that found

that in low-income families, adolescents reported having their first sexual experience at the

average age of 12. Recent national research has found that 13 percent of girls and 15 percent of

boys have had sex by the time they are 16. (Leonard, 2009). It was determined that when

mothers that hold better paying jobs are less likely to be in stressful circumstances. This will

provide a mental state that will allow them to sit down and speak to their children about waiting

to have sex till they’re older.

Poverty is also strongly related to teenage pregnancy. “In the United States, the states

with the highest percentage of teens living in poverty also have the highest proportion of births to

unwed teen mothers.” (Hinders, n.d.). Being a teenage mother makes it difficult to break the

cycle of poverty by giving their child a better life. The high level of pregnancy can be related to

the lack of education about safe-sex which is also correlated with little to no parental monitoring

during after school hours. A study performed by Romer, Stanton, and Galbraith found that

“children who reported high levels of parental monitoring were less likely to report initiating sex

in preadolescence (aged ≤10 years) and reported lower rates of sexual initiation as they aged.”

They also concluded that “communication was also positively related to the initiation of condom

use and consistent condom use.” (Romer, Stanton, and Galbraith, 1999). Education about safe

sex lowers the riskiness involved with sex in adolescents and helps lower teen pregnancy rates

and the spread of STD’s. Adolescents who live in impoverished homes sometimes don’t receive

that important education and are more likely to engage in risky sex.

Creating a program that will solve poverty is a task too large for any one person to take

on. However, many of these issues that I presented above arise because of a lack of support at

home after school because of the working situations of parents and guardians. They aren’t

permitted time to spend with their children after school working on homework as well as

providing adequate supervision. In order to combat some of these issues faced by Mexican

Americans that come from low-income households, I propose a plan to create an after-school

environment where Mexican American Adolescents can go to receive educational support as

well as proper supervision.

This plan first and foremost would require willing and able teachers, administrators or

other willing and responsible adults to volunteer their time once or twice a week on a schedule to

permit for this program to take place after every school day. The program would take place, as

stated, after school for 2-3 hours to fill the time between when school ends and when parents get

home from work. The program could take place in the school lunch room or auditorium to allow

adequate space for any number of adolescents to attend.

A portion of the time, preferably the first part, would be dedicated to tutoring, help with

homework, and other things dedicated towards the education of everyone that participates. The

second portion of time would be dedicated to an activity or event that the participants can enjoy

such as organized games of soccer, video games, or just hanging out with friends under the

supervision of the responsible adults who are present. Snacks and drinks could be provided as

well as many kids feel hungry after school.

Help from school officials and staff such as vice principals and ESL teachers would be

necessary to help promote this program among Mexican-American adolescents throughout the

school. Making parents aware of this program via email or a scheduled phone call from the

school might help them encourage their teens to participate in the program. Funding for the

snacks or any necessary materials could come from a federal grant known as the AmeriCorps

grant which provides funding for afterschool programs. There are other federally funded

resources for after school programs as well that can help with any expenses that arise from the

program. (Afterschool Alliance)

Being an education major, I have spent time in classrooms for many of my courses. This

semester I had the opportunity to speak with Shasta Burton, an ESL teacher, about the issues I

discussed earlier that her low-Socioeconomic students might experience and what a program like

this would look like and if it would be beneficial. She said, “I think it would definitely help.

Students would have that extra resource for education as well as the necessary supervision after

school.” I then asked what sort of opposition that a program like this might face.

Her response was this, “I would hope that there is no opposition to this proposed plan by

anyone. The only possible resistance I could imagine would be to find enough teachers or

administrators willing to volunteer their time to help with this program once or twice a week

with no compensation.” This problem, I believe, could be addressed at the level of the school

district. Teachers are often compensated for their time spent working with sports organizations,

clubs, drivers ed. and other activities. If teachers need compensation, I believe they could work

something out with the districts to receive it.

As demonstrated by the research I have conducted, poverty can affects many aspects of a

Mexican American adolescent’s development in areas such as emotional and social development,

educational achievement, physical health, and sexual habits. Poverty is an issue that needs to be

addressed to better the lives and futures of the adolescents in our communities. My hope is that if

my proposed plan were to be put in effect, it could help promote good educational habits

amongst the adolescents as well as provide them with adequate after school supervision to

prevent some of the issues that they face. As a future educator, my goal is to be more aware of

the adolescents who may be at risk because of their socioeconomic status as well as the many

other adversities that teens face today and continue educating myself on the best methods to help

them succeed.


Afterschool Alliance. Federal Funding For After School: A Valuable Resource to Tap

Escarce, J. J. (2003, October). Socioeconomic Status and the Fates of Adolescents. National

Center for Biotechnology Information. Retrieved from

Hinders, D. (n.d.) How Does Poverty Affect a Teen's Lifestyle? How to Adult. Retrieved from

Interview with ESL teacher, Shasta Burton, Copper Hills High School. (Conducted by Levi


Leonard, F. (2009, August 17) Poverty Linked to Early Sexual Activity in Kids. Futurity.

Retrieved from

Moore, A. (2013, August 29). How Does Poverty Affect a Teen's Lifestyle?

Retrieved from

NCCP. (n.d.) Child Poverty. NCCP. Retrieved from

Romer, D., Stanton, B., and Galbraith; et al. (1999, October) Parental Influence on Adolescent

Sexual Behavior in High-Poverty Settings. The JAMA Network. Retrieved from

Troxel, N. and Hastings, P. (n.d.) Poverty during Childhood and Adolescence May Predict

Long-term Health. UC Davis Center for Poverty Research. Retrieved from