Although it's true that some teens manage to overcome the effects of living in poverty and go on to become very successful adults, this is far from the norm. Growing up in poverty places teens at a serious disadvantage as they are trying to build the foundation for the rest of their lives. Parents, teachers and concerned adults must try to understand the obstacles low-income teens face in order to help them reach their full potential.
According to the ASCD -- formerly the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development -- teenagers raised in poverty are vulnerable because their lives are filled with emotional and social instability. Their parents may often need to move in order to find housing, which disrupts the social interactions of the teens both in their schools and in the community at large. Low-income teens are also more likely to struggle with depression, low self-esteem and a sense of powerlessness when compared to their peers from higher-income households. They struggle to understand how to display healthy and appropriate emotional responses to everyday situations, which makes it difficult to create strong friendships with peers or positive interactions with adult authority figures.
Poverty makes it difficult for teens to excel in school because poverty creates chronic stress that impairs attention and concentration. When teens are focused on meeting basic needs and dealing with unstable home lives, schoolwork is often not a priority. The Urban Institute reports that low-income teens who are working more than 20 hours per week to help support their families show low educational aspirations and low educational attainment compared to their higher-income peers who work fewer hours. Teens living in poverty also have less access to adults who can provide assistance with difficult school subjects or offer guidance regarding post-secondary educational options.
Poverty is strongly linked to teen 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. Giving birth while still a teenager makes it extremely difficult for a young mother to break the cycle of poverty and give her child a better life. Teenwise Minnesota reports that 60 percent percent of teen moms are living in poverty at the time of the birth and 40 percent are still living in poverty by age 27. However, it is encouraging to note that Teenwise Minnesota also found that teen mothers who received the support they needed to stay in school graduated at a rate that was similar to teens who had not given birth.
When teenagers living in poverty don't see a way to obtain legitimate employment, crime becomes an appealing alternative. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Service's Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation reports that 20 percent of low-income teens have been charged with a crime by the time they reach the age of 24, in comparison to just 12 percent of teens from high-income families. In urban areas, teens living in poverty are tempted by gang members who promise them income as well as a source of emotional support that they don't feel at home.