Poverty can alter a child’s brain structure, and thus psychosocial and educational outcomes.
The effects of poverty on the young, developing mind are troubling and undeniable, starting in the womb and continuing through adulthood. About 14.5 million children in the U.S. live in poverty, according to a 2015 report from the U.S. Census Bureau.
That number is a greater percentage than most developed nations, according to a 2016 report from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.
The numbers are disturbing in the wake of legislative trends that have seen resources for programs aimed at addressing child poverty drastically cut. According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, budgets adopted in 2015 by the U.S. House and Senate Budget committees cut more than $3 trillion from programs that serve people of limited means.
In New Hampshire, recent years have seen steady reductions to the state’s Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, increasing the cost of living for more than 1,000 low-income families. Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) fails to cover the cost of monthly rent for many low-income apartments. Those cuts don’t just affect parents who pay the bills, as New England College Professor Bernard Bluhm explains:
“In today’s society, growing up in poverty compromises children in all domains. Poverty has devastating and long-lasting effects on children. In New Hampshire, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), a.k.a. food stamps, provides eligible people with about two and a half weeks of food per month. Poor nutrition hampers healthy brain development. Living in risky housing increases the likelihood of exposure to lead. When families have to choose between heat, rent and food, children often sleep in the cold for nights on end. Parents have to make hard, risky choices that can expose children to violence and trauma.”
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Negative Effects of Poverty
While household wealth is commonly associated with the likelihood of a child graduating from high school and going to college, there is a substantial amount of research that shows how poverty negatively impacts children psychosocially, both immediately and in the long term.
For example, the Center for Poverty Research reported that household income has short-term effects on how preschoolers understand emotions and lasting effects on social competence. A similar study found that children living in poverty have an increased risk of difficulties with executive function and self-regulation, such as inattention, defiance, impulsivity and poor peer relationships.
Socioemotional effects due to poverty can be traced to changes in brain structure. Over the past decade, scientists have examined different parts of the brain to determine poverty’s impact on the minds of children, finding that poverty can cause structural changes in areas of the brain associated with school readiness skills.
In a 2015 JAMA Pediatrics study, researchers found that low-income children had abnormal structural brain development and lower standardized test scores, with as great as a 20% achievement gap explained by developmental issues in the frontal and temporal lobes of the brain.
Socioeconomic Status and Access to Resources
Socioeconomic status (SES) describes a combination of education, income and occupational factors, along with access to resources. Low SES is linked to higher levels of aggression, anxiety, depression and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, the American Psychological Association reports.
Low SES and poor school performance are intrinsically linked, as SES often determines family resources and choice of school.
Children from low SES families score at least 10% lower than the national average on national achievement scores in math and reading. These children are also more likely to be absent from school, further widening the educational gap between them and their wealthier peers who are likely to have access to computers, tutors and other sources of academic support.
Adolescent brains are susceptible to change caused by the circumstances often present in poor households, such as low academic stimulation, nutritional deficiencies, overcrowding, substandard and unstable housing, irregular access to healthcare, separation from parents, family turmoil and stress.
Research shows that toxic stress, a condition characterized by excessive or prolonged activation of the stress systems, is a major disruptor of brain development.
A prolonged release of cortisol, the stress hormone from the adrenal gland, can mean a constant state of alarm, making children more reactive. When faced with learning new material in school, children may have difficulty accessing the thinking part of the brain, causing them to become overwhelmed and shut down.
“With the lowest minimum wage in New England, high housing costs, and a social safety net that barely exists compared to 40 years ago, what we end up with is thousands of children on the edge, or falling over the edge into extreme poverty,” Bluhm said.
“During one recent year, more than 1,100 adults were turned away from New Hampshire domestic violence shelters due to lack of capacity. What happened to the children in those families? Poverty is often a collective condition in a community, so in poor communities, school programs that nurture positive physical and cognitive development — music, arts, and athletics — are cut.”
Steps to a Solution
Although all of these factors are interrelated with poverty and child development, correlation does not equal causation.
Providing higher quality preschool programs may be one way to compensate for the adverse effects of poverty on child development. Research suggests that higher quality preschool is more cost-effective than later interventions such as government-funded job training, hiring teachers to lower student-to-teacher ratios and rehabilitation programs for ex-convicts.
In addition, creating more one-stop facilities that integrate health and human services, as well as coordinating efforts between home and school to deal with children’s issues, could help improve children’s development in the face of poverty.
Finally, increasing federal spending on children’s education, social services, nutrition, and early education and care could give poor children a chance. At present, only 10% of the U.S. national budget is allocated for children, according to a report from the Urban Institute, a research group that studies economic and social policy.