ADHD News & Research

Study: Poverty Increases Risk for ADHD and Learning Disabilities

Children from families living below the poverty level, and those whose parents did not pursue education beyond high school, are more likely to be diagnosed with ADHD or learning disabilities, according to a new U.S. data brief that introduces more questions than it answers.

March 23, 2020

Families locked in a cycle of poverty have higher incidences of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD or ADD) and learning disabilities (LD) than do American families living above the poverty line, according to a U.S. National Health Statistics report.1

Using data from the National Health Interview Survey between 2016 and 2018, federal researchers found that ADHD or LD was diagnosed in 19% of children living in families below the poverty level. By contrast, ADHD or LD diagnoses existed in only 13% of families at or above the poverty level — defined by annual household income of $26,200 for a family of four.

According to the data, a diagnosis of ADHD or LD was found in 15% of children with parents who had a high school education or less; the same was true in less than 13% of children with parents who pursued higher education. Roughly 21% of white children with parents who had a high school diploma or less were diagnosed with ADHD or LD, compared with 16% of black children and 11.5% of Hispanic children in similar circumstances. This does not necessarily mean that ADHD and LD are less prevalent among black and Hispanic families; only that it is diagnosed and/or reported less often.

Dr. Victor Fornari, vice chair of child and adolescent psychiatry at Zucker Hillside Hospital and Cohen’s Children’s Medical Center, explained, “Poverty is often associated with increased adverse childhood experiences and trauma. It is not about race. Early childhood trauma changes the brain and our genes, with epigenetic changes that are real.”

Because the underlying survey relied on parent reports of ADHD or LD diagnosis, it leaves a lot of room for human error and underreporting due to stigma. In addition, this study did not factor in the health and funding of the public school systems in low- vs. higher-income areas, a factor that no doubt impacts learning. Homelessness and health insurance coverage were likewise not factored into the findings. All of this suggests much more study is warranted to fully understand how poverty impacts the physical and psychological health of children in the United States.


1Fornari, Victor, et al., NCHS Data Brief, U.S. National Center for Health Statistics (Mar. 2020).