Background: The pervasive gap in achievement among impoverished children has been investigated primarily in terms of parental investments, specifically parent to child speech and other forms of cognitive stimulation (e.g., toys, print materials). This research extends that literature by considering the role of a non-cognitive factor, namely task persistence, in the income-achievement gap. Using task persistence as the hypothesized mediator, duration of childhood in poverty is used to predict two educational variables - perceived academic competence and educational attainment. Although bivariate relationships between each of the variables have been demonstrated in past research, a full model linking task persistence with the income-achievement gap has not been investigated thus far.

Methods: Using multiple waves of longitudinal data, duration of childhood poverty (ages 0-9) is used to predict both perceived academic competence (age 17) and educational attainment (age 23) with task persistence (average of ages 9, 13, 17) as a mediator.

Results: With task persistence included in each model, the relationships between duration of childhood in poverty and both perceived academic competence and educational attainment are significantly reduced, confirming a mediational influence of task persistence.

Conclusions: As hypothesized, task persistence statistically mediates the relationship between duration of childhood in poverty and educational outcomes. The implications of these findings on school success and intergenerational poverty are addressed, as well as suggestions for future research.

Key Take Away Points

Task persistence is associated with both poverty and educational outcomes but there are no known studies that examine its mediational role in this relationship.

Using a longitudinal dataset measuring poverty from ages 0-9 and educational outcomes at ages 17 and 23, this research finds evidence for a mediational role of task persistence on the relationship between poverty and achievement.

Author Biography

Sara S. Whipple is an assistant professor of psychology at Virginia Military Institute in Lexington, VA. She earned her Ph.D. in developmental psychology from Cornell University in 2012. Whipple’s past work has largely examined the impact of cumulative risk on children’s development. Her research centers around the effects of poverty on children’s development, particularly how parenting practices mediate this association. Christine K. Genero graduated with her undergraduate degree from Cornell University, Human Development in 2008. This work was partially born out of her honors theses. Genero went on to conduct research at The Institute of Human Development, UC Berkeley and Wested focusing on closing the achievement gap in early mathematics. Genero is currently the Administrative Coordinator for the Walter lab, UCSF/HHMI. Gary W. Evans is the Elizabeth Lee Vincent Professor of Design and Environmental Analysis and Professor of Human Development at Cornell University. His research examines how the physical environment affects health and well-being among children. Evans’ specific areas of expertise include the environment of childhood poverty, cumulative risk and child development, environmental stressors, and the development of children's environmental attitudes and behaviors. Evans actively advises state, national, and transnational organizations on issues of children’s health. His work has been supported by the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health, the Mac Arthur Foundation, the W. T. Grant Foundation, and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.


We are grateful to the families and children who have participated in this research. Partial support came from the W.T. Grant Foundation and the John D. and Catherine T. Mac Arthur Foundation Network on Socioeconomic Status and Health.