New research links poverty to lower cognitive development in children

Children in poverty are already at a number of disadvantages. They have fewer books at home, which are read less often. They don’t live near grocery stores, making proper nutrition difficult. Their parents are stretched thin working multiple jobs, giving them less time at home. Their schools are underfunded, meaning that one of the few places they could go to make up for inequities at home isn’t coming through for them.

All of these factors have been offered up as explanations for the lower educational attainment of children who grow up in poverty. Now, researchers have found that there is another variable that interacts with all of them, tying them all together: brain development.

On Monday, a team of researchers published a paper in the journal, JAMA Pediatrics, showing that children who grow up poor have developed less gray matter in areas of their brains associated with learning than children who grow up out of poverty. As Bloomberg reported, a series of MRI scans showed that “The anatomical difference could explain as much as 20 percent of the gap in test scores between kids growing up in poverty and their more affluent peers.”

Children in households below the federal poverty level—an annual income of about $24,000 for a family of four—had gray matter volumes 7 percent to 10 percent lower than what would be expected for normal development. About 20 percent of American children lived at this income level in 2013, according to Census data. Smaller gaps were evident for households considered “near poor,” making up to 150 percent of the poverty level, currently about $36,000 for a family of four.

Kids living just above the “near poor” level looked statistically similar to children from much wealthier families.

Researchers told Bloomberg that differences begin to emerge at ages as young as four.

There are a number of causal stories one can develop that link poverty with stunted cognitive development. Crowded, loud neighborhoods have long been associated with impairing language development due to children in louder environments hearing less words, but those children are also probably getting less sleep — crucial for all forms of development. Having fewer books, crayons and other active forms of cognitive stimulation at home means that poorer children’s brains aren’t being exercised as much as their more affluent peers. And lack of access to proper nutrition is always a bad thing.

In short, everything we already have found to be correlated with lack of educational opportunity and attainment can also be linked to lowered educational aptitude. While brain plasticity persists into adulthood, meaning that children who grow up in poverty are biologically able to catch up, this research shows that our failure to fix systemic poverty is holding one out of every five children in America back. In other words, we’re in the middle of a national brain drain, and we’ve brought it on ourselves.

Poverty is obviously an economic issue. But it’s also a social issue, and this research shows that it’s a public health issue, as well. It wouldn’t take much to fix the problem — as the research noted, children living slightly above the poverty line developed at rates similar to their far more affluent peers. What’s more, such an investment would improve educational and by extension economic prospects for a fifth of our developing population.

We have no excuse.


Jon Green graduated from Kenyon College with a B.A. in Political Science and high honors in Political Cognition. He worked as a field organizer for Congressman Tom Perriello in 2010 and a Regional Field Director for President Obama's re-election campaign in 2012. Jon writes on a number of topics, but pays especially close attention to elections, religion and political cognition. Follow him on Twitter at @_Jon_Green, and on Google+. .

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15 Responses to “New research links poverty to lower cognitive development in children”

  1. ComradeRutherford says:

    “We have no excuse.”

    Yes, we do. Because if America did that, the Walton family might only have $145B instead of $146B. Clearly that would he a terrible thing.

  2. emjayay says:

    The study included people from 4 to 22, so it didn’t zero in on when the deficit happens. I suspect it is mainly in the first four years of fast brain development, and then built upon or not after that. Most of what you listed are not things a 0-4 year old encounters.
    And many, maybe most, poor kids do not live in “a cesspool of used syringes and broken booze bottles”. They live in more rural areas. Maybe a trailer court with some methheads.

    Unless you live in an inaccessible area with no car (how does that work?) every store has frozen if not fresh vegies. And a lot of food in cans is fine nutritionally. I’m pretty sure that living on Coke and potato chips and dip is not a requirement anywhere. Lower income people qualify for SNAP, and despite deceptive articles about living on SNAP, which always use the average grant which is income adjusted and not intended to be the whole food budget unless the recipient can’t afford anything, it provides enough for anyone to live healthily on. The Republican reduced full SNAP for one person is around $180 a month.

    Again, like not reading to kids or interacting with them in a complex and continual and positive way, nutritional deficits anywhere in the US are much more about knowledge and culture than affordability or accessibility.

  3. Houndentenor says:

    Those countries also do not have anything close to the level of income inequality that we have in the US nor would they accept schools as underfunded as ours.

  4. Houndentenor says:

    We don’t need a radical restructuring of society. We just need a return to the kind of pay scales (adjusted for inflation) we had in the 1960s. Working people could afford a home and the family often lived on one income. Businesses obviously flourished under that tax structure. And we were building infrastructure all over the country. We’ve allowed a few super wealthy sociopaths to convince the public that poor people deserve to be poor and that they should just work harder and longer as if there are enough hours in the day to support a family when prices keep increasing while wages do not.

  5. emjayay says:

    I agree. It is both. I just think there are factors in the home and upbringing of the kids particularly in the early formative years that are at least as important but are often ignored by liberals because it seems like blaming the victim and racism and classism.

    The anatomical difference in brains is the result of lack of a rich (not money rich) and nurturing home environment and quality parental care.

    And yes, countries who have chosen a little less per capita income in exchange for fewer hours worked a year, job stability, less inequality and less stress have made a far better choice.

  6. GarySFBCN says:

    I’m all for scrapping our economic system for something fair, but that is a long-term goal and I don’t think it is doable in a country with such high levels of stupidity.

    But even with an even playing field, the harmful effects of institutional racism, which is the root cause of much of our poverty, are not easily undone.

    Dr. Camara Jones developed an allegory that I will totally screw up, so the gist is that 2 plants with two different colors of flowers are cared for differently because the owner doesn’t like the pink flowers. So the red flower plants gets most of the water, is trimmed regularly and fertilized but the pink flower plant only gets water when there is extra. The red flower plant thrives and the pink flower plant withers. After 10 years, the owner sees how he was prejudiced against the pink flower plant and begins to water it regularly and says ‘pink is beautiful’ over and over. But the pink flower plant is so depleted that it never really blooms like the other plant, and, after a few months, the owner says “I was right to prefer red over pink.”

    Bringing people out of poverty is a must, but to think that all will be just fine the day after a living wage is implemented is short sighted (not that you implied that).

    We need a comprehensive, holistic approach to this horrible issue.

  7. Houndentenor says:

    Why can’t it be both? To assume it has to be one set of problems or the other is ridiculous. These are simultaneous issues that compound each other. Why not address all of that?

    And yes, parents working 2 jobs are not spending time with their kids. Nor are upper middle class parents working 80 hours a week. When I worked in the financial district, we used to joke that CEOs kept pics of their kids on their desks so they could remember what they looked like. There’s a lot of stress on families. Even well off people aren’t always eating healthy and too many people are sleep deprived. We don’t take enough vacation and in fact millions of Americans have to work sick because they can’t afford to take the day off without pay (or even risk getting fired because their job requires a doctor’s note for any absence).

    Our entire work culture is built on squeezing as much work out of as few people as possible while paying them the fewest benefits. It’s killing us. The problem is structural and the solution is not as simple as you are implying. I agree that a lot of people are shitty parents and it’s not just the lower income ones! But there are a lot of parents who are overworked, underpaid and just barely staying ahead of bill collectors and eviction notices. How long can we continue to ignore that?

  8. Houndentenor says:

    Poor nutrition along would be bad enough. The added problems you mention compound that. This is all perfectly obvious to anyone who isn’t a moron. So the question is: why don’t we do something about it. The best way to alleviate the stress of poverty would be better jobs and jobs that pay better plus better access to healthy food for everyone.

  9. GarySFBCN says:

    Actually, it is the stress of working 2 jobs, the stress of it being too dangerous to go outside and play, the stress of walking to school through a cesspool of used syringes and broken booze bottles, the stress of living in a food desert, the stress of underfunded schools in poor neighborhoods, the stress of institutional racism, etc.

  10. GarySFBCN says:

    There has been a lot of research that shows that the cumulative allostatic stress associated with poverty does inhibit development in infants and the damage may be permanent if not alleviated by age 2. That and low birthweight births are more frequent in moms that are under constant stress associated with poverty AND longitudinal studies now reveal a greater incident of hypertension, diabetes and heart disease among those age 50 who were low birthweight infants.

    Dr. Michael Lu, now the head of HRSA, has researched this and has some interesting solutions. I’ve met with him a few times and worked on a few committees with him to alleviate the stress factors associated with poverty.

    It works.

  11. ammy.toilor says:

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  12. Indigo says:

    An ignorant population votes Republican. What further explanation is needed to identify the roadblock to helping the poor?

  13. emjayay says:

    It’s not poverty per se. It is not “food deserts.” It is not working two jobs. It is ignorance and lack of knowledge of how to raise children. In the US poor kids hear a fraction of the messages from adults as middle/upper class children. And the messages they get are far more negative instead of positive ones.
    Most liberals want to blame societal issues, not people. That would be racist or classist or something.
    But there are programs in some places now with repeated home visits demonstrating how to parent – like how to read to kids and basically interact in an educational manner instead of ignoring them and watching TV or your phone. A little too late, but charter schools like KIPP schools, without maybe naming it, teach behaviors that middle/upper class kids already do but poor kids were not shown. Like listening, tracking, and nodding.

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