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Multiple Hardships Among Philadelphia Families with Young Children (2008-2011)


March 2012

Often times, low-income families with young children under the age of 4 experience a continuous cycle of hardships (i.e., food insecurity, energy insecurity, and housing insecurity). These experiences have negative consequences on the developing bodies and brains of young children.


Food insecurity is the lack of consistent access to sufficient healthy food for all family members to enjoy active, healthy lives. In 2010, 48.8 million people, including 16.2 million children lived in U.S. households that were food insecure. Approximately 24% (or 9 million) of very young children (under age 6) lived in households experiencing food insecurity in 2010. Children's HealthWatch research in Philadelphia found that nearly 24% of families with young children were food insecure in 2011. This research has shown that young children who live in households experiencing food insecurity are more likely to:

  • Be in poor or fair health
  • Experience problems with cognitive development
  • Exhibit behavioral and emotional problems

Energy insecurity occurs when families lack consistent access to sufficient home heating or electricity to ensure healthy and safe conditions in the home. Households were classified as being energy insecure if the utility company sent a letter threatening to shut off services or had shut off services in the past year or if they had relied on a cooking stove to heat their house. Young children who live in households experiencing energy insecurity are more likely to: 

  • Be in poor or fair health 
  • Have higher hospitalization rates 
  • Be at risk for developmental delays

Housing insecurity occurs when families move frequently, crowd into living spaces that are too small, or double up with another family for financial reasons. Nearly 40% of families that the Children's HealthWatch team interviewed in North Philadelphia experienced some form of housing insecurity in 2011. Children living in families who have moved multiple times in the past year are more likely to: 

  • Be in poor or fair health 
  • Be at risk for developmental delay
  • Have lower weight-for-age

Cumulative Hardship 

For many low-income families, hardships are rarely experienced in isolation.

Cumulative hardship is comprised of three components:

  1. Food insecurity
  2. Energy insecurity
  3. Housing insecurity

Providing basic necessities like enough healthy food, heat, lighting and stable housing can be extremely difficult and result in the need to make tough choices about which bills to pay. Families constantly need to make trade-offs to stay within their budget. As a result, child health and wellbeing suffer. In 2011, approximately two thirds of Philadelphia families interviewed by Children's HealthWatch experienced some form of hardship. Children's Health Watch research has found that children living in families who experience multiple hardships are: 

  • More likely to be at risk for developmental delay 
  • Less likely to be classified as well

Cumulative Hardship Among Philadelphia Families with Young Children

 % of Households with young children 

No Hardship Moderate to Severe Hardship
2008 36% 62%
2009 36.1% 63.9%
2010 39.4% 60.6%
2011 36% 64.1%