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Holidays stress out low-income parents, but poverty is year-round

U-M researchers say that while the holidays tend to be more stressful for low-income parents as children ask for expensive toys, people who donate to charities need to recognize that poverty is not seasonal.

"We generally think of the holidays as a time for giving and make our donations out of empathy," says Michael S. Spencer, an assistant professor in the School of Social Work. "For many working families in poverty, the feeling of not being able to adequately provide for their children is year-long."

Long-term poverty can affect a child's developmental outcome, such as emotional and behavioral problems, and academic success, he says.

"If we can take the focus off of expensive gifts at this time of year and reflect year-round about the circumstances that create and sustain poverty, we'll be able to help many people in a meaningful way," Spencer says.

During the last five years, Carol T. Mowbray, a professor in the School of Social Work, has conducted a National Institute of Mental Health-funded study of southeast Michigan mothers with serious mental illnesses. Nearly all were very pooroften due to the expenses and disability associated with their mental illnessesand found it difficult to meet their children's needs.

In a random sample of 35 women diagnosed with depression, they were asked: "What would you say are the disadvantages of having children and being a mother?" More than 25 percent talked about their inability to buy things their children wanted. Some of the responses:

"Not having enough money to keep them dressed well...this winter, my daughter had to use my gloves and my hat."

"Expenses. As they get older, the things they want are more expensive. I don't want to let them down. I don't want them to feel like they never got what they want."

"Sometimes you can't give them what they want; you always want your kids to have the best."

While the need is year-round, donating during the holidays is a good start. Indeed, giving to others can be a positive experience for families that have the means to do so, Mowbray says.

"Children see their parents as role models and, from their actions, can become more empathic and understanding to others, and more prone to charitable giving when they become adults," Mowbray says.

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