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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