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The Biological Residue of Childhood Poverty


  • Gregory E. Miller and Edith Chen, Department of Psychology and Cells to Society (C2S), The Center on Social Disparities and Health, Institute for Policy Research,Northwestern University.
  • Neither author reports a scientific or financial conflict of interest. Preparation of this article was supported by Grant R01 HD058502 from the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.

Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Gregory E. Miller, Department of Psychology, Northwestern University, 102 Swift Hall, 2029 Sheridan Road, Evanston, IL 60208-2710; e-mail:


Children raised in poverty are prone to physical health problems late in life. To understand these findings and address the scientific challenge they represent, we must formulate integrative conceptual frameworks at the crossroads of behavioral and biomedical science, with a strong developmental emphasis. In this article, we outline such a framework and discuss research bearing on its validity. We address how childhood poverty gets under the skin, at the level of tissues and organs, in a manner that affects later disease risks. We also tackle questions about resilience; even with lengthy exposure to childhood poverty, why does only a subset of people acquire diseases? Why are some individuals protected whereas others remain vulnerable? Maternal nurturance might be a source of resilience, buffering children from the long-term health consequences of poverty. We conclude with research priorities.