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The Role of Chaos in Poverty and Children’s Socioemotional Adjustment

The Role of Chaos in Poverty and Children’s Socioemotional Adjustment

The Role of Chaos in Poverty and Children’s Socioemotional Adjustment

Research Article

The Role of Chaos in Poverty and Children’s Socioemotional Adjustment Gary W. Evans, Carrie Gonnella, Lyscha A. Marcynyszyn, Lauren Gentile, and Nicholas Salpekar

Cornell University

ABSTRACT—There are growing levels of chaos in the lives

of American children, youth, and families. Increasingly,

children grow up in households lacking in structure and

routine, inundated by background stimulation from noise

and crowding, and forced to contend with the frenetic pace

of modern life. Although widespread, chaos does not occur

randomly in the population. We document that low-income

adolescents face higher levels of chaos than their more af-

fluent counterparts and provide longitudinal evidence that

some of the adverse effects of poverty on socioemotional

adjustment are mediated by exposure to chaotic living


There is widespread evidence of growing levels of chaos in

the lives of American children and youth (Bronfenbrenner,

McClelland, Wethington, Moen, & Ceci, 1996). The amount of

time parents can devote directly to their children is declining

precipitously as more hours are spent away from home, working,

commuting, and delivering children to and from child care,


and otherritualstogetherasdomestic time becomes compressed;

more and more children live in crowded, noisy, and substandard

housing; and increasingly, family members characterize home

life as hectic, unstructured, unpredictable, and, at times, simply

out of control. Although such trends are ubiquitous, chaos is not

evenly distributed in the population. Low-income families are

more likely to face chaotic living conditions than are their mid-

dle- and upper-income counterparts. In this article, we bring

together two strands of thinking about risk factors in human de-

velopment to examine the role of chaos in poverty’s adverse im-

pacts on children’s socioemotional adjustment.

In the bioecological model of human development, Bronfen-

brenner (Bronfenbrenner & Evans, 2000) offers the following


Throughout the life course, human development takes place

through processes of progressively more complex reciprocal in-

teractions between an active, evolving biopsychological human

organism and the persons, objects, and symbols in its immediate


a fairly regular basis over extended periods of time. Such enduring


proximal processes. (p. 117)


proximal processes because it shortens their duration and in-

creases interruptions, rendering exchanges of energy between


Chaos may also lower the intensity of proximal processes, given

stress and fatigue in parents and other caregivers who must also

contend with chaos. Frenetic activity, lack of structure, and un-

predictability, in conjunction with intense background stimula-

tion, take their toll by depriving the developing organism of the

kinds of well-structured, predictable, and sustained exchanges

of energy with the persons, objects, and symbols in the immedi-

ate environment critical to fostering and sustaining healthy

development (Bronfenbrenner & Evans, 2000; Bronfenbrenner

& Morris, 1998).

Chaotic living conditions might also interfere with the devel-

opment of competency, the belief that one is an effective agent in

coping with one’s surroundings (White, 1959). Unpredictable,

nonroutine, inconsistent, and noncontingent physical and social

surroundings can interfere with a sense of mastery and lead to

helplessness in the developing person. Lack of routines and


the child’s ability to self-regulate and manage his or her own

behaviors and emotions.

Address correspondence to Gary Evans, Departments of Design & Environmental Analysis and of Human Development, Cornell Uni- versity, Ithaca, NY 14853-4401; e-mail:


560 Volume 16—Number 7Copyright r 2005 American Psychological Society



Lack of routines, structure, and rituals in the home has been

shown tobe negatively associated withpsychological adjustment

in children and adolescents, parental competency ratings, sat-

isfaction with family, and school achievement (Fiese et al., 2002;

Repetti, Taylor, & Seeman, 2002). Noise, crowding, and poor

housing quality are positively associated with children’s psy-

chological distress (Evans, 2001; Evans, Wells, & Moch, 2003;

Wachs & Corapci, in press), as well as learned helplessness

(Cohen, 1980; Evans & Stecker, 2004).


The immediate living environment of many low-income families

can be fairly characterized as chaotic, consisting of numerous

intractable and unpredictable conditions (Bronfenbrenner et al.,

1996; Evans, 2004; McLoyd, 1998; Repetti et al., 2002; Sher-

man, 1994; Taylor, Repetti, & Seeman, 1997). Low-income

children and youth face a bewildering array of suboptimal,

chaotic living conditions. Relative to their more affluent coun-

terparts, they reside inmorecrowded, noisier,and poorer-quality

housing (Evans, 2004; Saegert & Evans, 2003). Poor children

must also contend with less structure, routine, and predictability

in their daily home life (Brody & Flor, 1997; Jensen, James,

Boyce, & Hartnett, 1983; Matheny, Wachs, Ludwig, & Phillips,

1995). Thus, chaos is a plausible mechanism to account for the

adverse impacts of poverty on socioemotional adjustment.

Numerous studies have documented negative relations be-

tween household income and psychological distress in children

and adolescents (Bradley & Corwyn, 2002; Duncan & Brooks-

Gunn, 1997; Grant et al., 2003; Luthar, 1999; McLoyd, 1998).

Grant et al. found an average effect size of .22 for internalizing

symptoms and .17 for externalizing symptoms across 46 studies

of children and poverty. Cross-sectional and longitudinal results

converged. Moreover, the longer the duration of exposure to

poverty, particularly in early childhood, the greater the adverse

impact (Bradley & Corwyn, 2002; Duncan & Brooks-Gunn,

1997; Luthar, 1999; McLoyd, 1998).

Although no researchers have directly investigated poverty

and learned helplessness, a few have shown that lower socio-

economic status (SES) is associated with diminished mastery

beliefs in children (Bandura, Barbaranelli, Caprara, & Pastor-

elli, 2001; Battle & Rotter, 1963). Low-SES parents discourage

self-directedness in their children (Kohn, 1977) and are more

restrictive than high-SES parents (Luster, Rhoades, & Haas,

1989); these trends, in turn, lead to lower self-efficacy among

low-SES adolescents (Whitbeck et al., 1997).

Children’sself-regulatoryabilitymay beinfluencedbypoverty

as well. Studies have shown that income is positively associated

with maternal and teacher ratings of self-regulatory behavior

among 6- through 9-year-olds (Brody, Flor, & Morgan Gibson,

1999) and with delay of gratification among third through fifth


that self-regulatory ability in third through fifth graders buffered

some of the ill effects of multiple risk exposure on psychological


Three studies provide more direct evidence that chaos may

account for some of the ill effects of poverty on children. In a

study of inner-city 8- to 12-year-olds, Kliewer and Kluger (1998)

discovered that children with regular and predictable house-

holdroutineswere buffered from theharmfuleffects ofhassles on

adjustment. Bresnahan and Blum (1972) studied concept for-

mation in low- and middle-SES 7-year-olds who were asked to

discover what combination of color and form was correct (e.g.,

triangle on green background). The children initially received

either 0, 6, or 12 trials of random feedback (acquisition phase)

and then received accurate, contingent feedback on each test

trial. When there was no initial random feedback, low-SES

children had a 15% error rate on test trials, and high-SES chil-

dren had a 5% error rate. However, when noncontingent, random

feedback (6 or 12 trials) was given during the acquisition phase,

low- and high-SES children had the same error rate, 15%, at test.

In a third investigation, parenting practices (a latent construct

including mother-child harmony, maternal involvement in

school, and maintenance of household routines) significantly

mediated the effects of poverty on cognitive and emotional

competency (Brodyetal., 1999).These three studies suggestthat

chaos could convey some of the harm associated with childhood



There are growing levels of chaos in the lives of many children.

Chaos, however, is not randomly distributed in the population.

Low-income households experience a disproportionate share of

chaotic living environments characterized by high levels of am-

bient stimulation (e.g., noise, crowding), minimal structure and


activities. Such conditions have been linked to psychological

distress in the developing person. Furthermore, poverty is neg-

atively associated with good adjustment in children.

Thus, we hypothesized that compared with middle-income

adolescents, low-income adolescents experience greater chaos

and manifest more socioemotional distress. Moreover, we hy-

pothesized that exposure to chaos accounts for some of the

elevation in socioemotional distress among lower-income ado-

lescents. To assess these two hypotheses, we incorporated mul-

tiple indicators of socioemotional distress into a longitudinal




Three hundredthirty-ninechildrenparticipatedinWave1ofthis

study when they were in Grades 3 through 5 (M 5 9.2 years, 51%

male). Three to 4 years later, 223 of these same children were

Volume 16—Number 7 561

G.W. Evans et al.




years, 52% male). All of the families in the sample lived in rural

areas in upstate New York. They were recruited from public

schools, New York State Co-Operative Extension programs, and


5%).Low-income families were oversampled (53%) because this

research program focuses on rural poverty. The mean income-to-

needs ratio was1.66atWave1and2.34atWave2.Thisratioisan

annually adjusted, per capita index, comparing household in-

come with federal estimates of minimally required expenditures

for maintaining a household. Only one child per household par-

ticipated in the study. The sample was predominantly White

(94%), reflecting the demographics of rural upstate New York.

The mean income-to-needs ratio at Wave 1 was 1.81 for chil-


did not participate in the second wave, t(338) 5 3.24, p < .01.


were disproportionately from low-income families. None of the

outcome measures, however, were related to attrition.


All data were collected with a standardized protocol in partici-

pants’ residences (see Evans, 2003, for more details).


Chaos was assessed with a standard scale that possesses excel-

lent reliability and converges with independent ratings of noise,

crowding, foot traffic, and confusion in the home (Matheny et al.,

1995). We added items to increase coverage of routines and rit-

uals in the home (a for revised chaos scale 5 .77). These addi- tional items came from the Family Ritual Questionnaire (Fiese &

Kline, 1993) and the Family Routines Inventory (Jensen et al.,

1983). For this measure of chaos, the mother answered ‘‘true’’ or

‘‘false’’ to statements describing environmental stimulation



(‘‘[Target child] does his[her] homework at the same time each

day’’). Chaos, unlike all other measures we report here, was as-

sessed only at Wave 2.

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