Early-Childhood Poverty and Adult Attainment, Behavior, and Health


  • We thank William Dickens, Rob Dugger, Mimi Engel, Michael Foster, Rucker Johnson, Ann Siegal, Aaron Sojourner, Sergio Urzua, Sara Watson, and participants of the University of Michigan’s National Poverty Center conference “Long-Run Impact of Early Life Events” and of seminars at the Brookings Institution, Brown University, Cornell University, and the University of Oxford for comments on related drafts. This project was funded in part by the Partnership for America’s Economic Success. Ziol-Guest acknowledges the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Health and Society Scholars program at Harvard University for its financial support.

concerning this article should be addressed to Greg J. Duncan, Department of Education, University of California Irvine, Irvine, CA 92697. Electronic mail may be sent to gduncan@uci.edu.


This article assesses the consequences of poverty between a child’s prenatal year and 5th birthday for several adult achievement, health, and behavior outcomes, measured as late as age 37. Using data from the Panel Study of Income Dynamics (1,589) and controlling for economic conditions in middle childhood and adolescence, as well as demographic conditions at the time of the birth, findings indicate statistically significant and, in some cases, quantitatively large detrimental effects of early poverty on a number of attainment-related outcomes (adult earnings and work hours). Early-childhood poverty was not associated with such behavioral measures as out-of-wedlock childbearing and arrests. Most of the adult earnings effects appear to operate through early poverty’s association with adult work hours.