Funded Grants

Effects of financial concerns on low-income parents' speech to children

Children from low- and high-income families have vastly different early language experiences. Research has investigated the profound effects of early differences in language input on later development, but significantly less attention has been devoted to the critical question of why differences emerge in the first place. In contrast to existing research that often focuses on characterizing differences between the input provided by parents of higher- vs. lower-socioeconomic status (SES), our goal is to understand the day-to-day circumstances influencing parents’ behavior in low-SES settings and to explore the realities and consequences of families’ experiences with financial insecurity. Specifically, our proposed research aims to investigate how real-life difficulties faced by parents living in poverty – in particular, cognitive demands imposed by continuously having to worry about insufficient resources – can affect interactions with their children and impede the language input they are otherwise able to provide.

Our project will address three primary aims. First, we will test the hypothesis that financial concerns capture the attention of parents in low-SES settings and interfere with the quantity and quality of communicative input that they can provide for their children. Using naturalistic recordings from the home, we will test whether being asked to contemplate financial challenges leads parents to speak to their children less during everyday interactions. Data from a pilot study (n=22) suggest that lab-induced attention to financial challenges affects communication with children in subsequent minutes, but this study was limited by constraints inherent in controlled lab experiments. Second, our research will broaden our understanding of the challenges that different families face by studying participants from two communities that are vastly underrepresented in contemporary research: Latinx families in El Paso, TX, and African American families in Trenton, NJ. Children from low-SES families in both communities are at-risk for difficulties with language and school, and almost no existing research offers comparisons between these racially/ethnically underrepresented communities, which will be critical to developing effective and culturally-sensitive interventions for supporting children from vulnerable populations. Finally, we will explore how fluctuations in parents’ speech relate to financial concerns over time. We will collect daylong recordings from the same families at two different age points: 18 months, and one year later, at 30 months. Moreover, at each age, we will collect data at the beginning of the month (when finances are most likely to be secure) and at the end of the month (when money is most likely to be scarce). This longitudinal design will allow us to explore fluctuations in parents’ speech across different timescales (from minutes to weeks to months) and to test relations between the speech that low-SES children hear and current levels of financial insecurity in the home.

The ultimate goal of this research is to understand how real-life challenges, including the persistent need to manage financial concerns, may intrude on parents’ interactions with their children across multiple communities. Better understanding of such contributors may inform interventions and policies designed to reduce early and long-lasting effects of poverty on parental speech and their children’s development.