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Poverty May Impoverish Childhood Learning

Posted by Jane Akre
Monday, December 08, 2008 1:16 PM EST
Category: Major Medical, Protecting Your Family
Tags: Poverty, Childhood Poverty, Stroke, Early Learning, Cognitive Decline

Poverty may do more than hurt material goods, it may impact brain development in children. 



IMAGE SOURCE: Teen strapped up for monitoring/ author: Karl Frank Jr. Web site


More than 13 million children in the United States – 18 percent of all children – live in families with incomes below the federal poverty level, reports the National Center for Children in Poverty.

A study to be published next spring indicates that poverty may cause them to be lagging behind middle-class children in brain function as well as economics.

The difference seen among middle-class kids and low-income kids is as dramatic as the damage seen from a stroke in some cases, says lead researcher Mark Kishiyama, a cognitive psychologist at the University of California-Berkeley

"It suggests that in these kids, prefrontal function is reduced or disrupted in some way,” he says to USA Today.  

The study will be published in the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience.

Poverty may impact children in many ways – malnutrition, drugs during pregnancy, toxic environments, illiteracy, and stress, all impact developing minds. The end result can be seen in brain function, specifically in an inability to acquire language, to plan, to remember details, and pay attention in school.

The good news is that these outcomes are reversible if caught early through focused lessons and games that encourage children to think out loud and to make decisions.

Though the effects of poverty are reversible, children need "incredibly intensive interventions to overcome this kind of difficulty," says Susan Neuman, an education professor at the University of Michigan, to USA Today.

This study relied on an EEG (electroencephalograph) to measure brain function.   26 children watched images flashing on a computer screen. They were told to look for a tilted triangle.

Children from an impoverished background were significantly less able to detected the triangles and block out distractions, which is a function of the prefrontal cortex. The children were healthy in every other way. 

The Journal study is being called a “wake-up call” about the impact of deprivation on brain development. Researchers believe this is a call for universal early childhood education.  

Previous studies have shown that low-income children hear less language - approximately 30 million fewer words by the age of four and talking to children may be the key to boosting the performance and development of the prefrontal cortex.

Professor Marian Diamond, from UC Berkeley, stresses the importance of human interaction, no matter what your socioeconomic background.

She cites her work with Cambodian orphans who, despite poor living conditions, matched their American counterparts in acuity due to strong group interactions and mutual support.

Professor Thomas Boyce, one of the researchers from UC Berkeley, tells BBC News, “We are certainly not blaming lower socioeconomic families for not talking to their kids - there are probably a zillion reasons why that happens."  

Art and music programs are known to enrich and change the brain, but often they are the first to be cut in budget-strapped schools.  

Poverty and inadequate health care go hand in hand. The SCHIP program, that offers low cost medical care to families, will be expiring in March 2009 and will be a new item on the agenda for President Obama.  #


Anonymous User
Posted by Gail
Monday, December 08, 2008 3:07 PM EST

Oh, what utter B.S. If that was the case, many Tin Pan Alley giants like George and Ira Gershwin, Irving Berlin, Milton Berle, Harry Waren,and a host of other brilliant minds born into poverty would have been impaired. I was told that Berle said something to the effect, he was lucky to be born poor. Look at Obama's background. He wasn't born into a rich lifestyle, yet he had love and attention.

Our family, along with my husband's were poor and we reached our dreams with love and commitment. Yet, another worthless study. What a load of bull.

Anonymous User
Posted by Anonymous
Monday, December 08, 2008 3:28 PM EST

This study is BS. I know the damaging effects of poverty on the human mind. What this article does not discuss is the environment these children are raised in: TVs which babysit, chips, soda, hotdogs, ramen soup, parents who simply could care less etc.
Many of the great minds may have come from financial poverty but lived in a non-financially wealthy environment.

Anonymous User
Posted by anonymous
Monday, December 08, 2008 3:29 PM EST

correction to previous comment - This study IS NOT BS.

Anonymous User
Posted by none
Monday, December 08, 2008 4:07 PM EST

OMG, who is funing this crap. Let's research water more. I bet it's not wet like people claim.

Anonymous User
Posted by Tom Hezog
Monday, December 08, 2008 4:40 PM EST

It is possible that the research has benifit and to simply disregard it as 'BS' is naive and uninformed. My partner and I have adopted two children who were approximately 8 years old at the time of adoption and were in the foster care system for more than 3 years. They were from impoverished backgrounds and exhibit poor problem solving skills and are challenged in standard school settings. They both,however, have benefited from music and art. While we see that they have the potential to learn and succeed their is also a recognizeable obstacle that we have to diligently work to overcome. Any research that can help to define and provide resolutions to learning deficiencies is benefitial. The article does not equate all poverty with lack of brain development just a correlation. Some of the above comments are less than informed and too defensive. There is a problem with poverty and it does negatively affect the society.

Anonymous User
Posted by anonymous
Monday, December 08, 2008 4:47 PM EST

This looks correct to me.

born poor -> Obama -> impaired

Anonymous User
Posted by Thomas Boyko
Monday, December 08, 2008 6:14 PM EST

Looks like they just took US kids from either "Poor" or "Rich" backgrounds and measure their brain development. It's a friggin' shame they never went further to determine the actual root of these neurological discrepancies, and while the intent may have been to differentiate the environments in which impoverished and wealthy children are raised, they ended up coming across like "Poor children are mentally impaired simply because they are poor."

Perhaps, as someone had said earlier, it is because of the television and diet? Perhaps the developmental issues are caused by a lack of effective stimulation (e.g. staring blankly at a flickering box all day does not a bright kid make) or maybe diet (home cooked meal versus high-sodium, low-protein, processed junk food from a box, just add margarine and water) or maybe a lack of human interaction. There are probably a huge number of substantial differences in a childhood environment bearing on brain development, which should have been researched further (probably stopped short due to lack of funding) but were left alone.

Posted by daliya robson
Monday, December 08, 2008 11:14 PM EST

Is it possible that poor kids eat junk food and as others have said spend the days watching garbage tv while parents work or sit about drunk or apathetic or worse.
I came from a poor family and we all went to work at age of 11 to pay for books, shoes etc.
Poor of money does not mean poor of brain cells . Its the state of mind and junk foods that do it . Get the poor kid to wash cars and walk to school and run about with friends and help parents clean house and eat healthy and they wont have poor brain cells. Give up the white crap bread and junk foods and all the kids in the usa will be brighter .

Anonymous User
Posted by UPK is the way!
Tuesday, December 09, 2008 9:32 AM EST

Weather substantiated or not- this is a problem in our country. Of course there are always exceptions to any rule. It seems that the focal point of this article should be the argument for Universal Early Childhood Education! Lets focus on going forward and the positive change ahead.

Anonymous User
Posted by A.C.
Tuesday, December 09, 2008 10:07 AM EST

The reason kids living in poverty eat poorly and are left to be babysat by the television is that no poor parent can afford to stay home with the kids, and in almost every major city in the US, child care with a licensed provider is the single largest expense for working parents. This was not the case "back in the day," so the childhood experiences of people who are adults now tells us virtually nothing that's helpful about how to get out of poverty. Research has indicated for years that nutrition, early education, and family mental health all contribute to healthy brain function, and poor parents who have to work to avoid eviction or put any food whatsoever on the table can't simply say "gee, I think I'll stay home and work on logic problems with my 5-year-old today" because minimum-wage jobs don't allow sick or personal days and will simply fire them. It's easy to condemn poor parents, because then we don't have to own up to 1) how easy we have it by comparison (and the fact that we should help those who are less fortunate) 2)how totally awful and depressing it is that minimum wage jobs don't even come close to paying for the bare minimum a family needs to stay safe and healthy. I would like to challenge all those who said this study is "BS" to live for a year on 21,100 (the poverty line for a family of four) and see how they feel when they are accused of "not giving a crap" because they could only afford ramen noodles and TV instead of real food and babysitters. (And sending 11 year olds to work?!?! A good way to get social services breathing down your neck these days!) According to census data, most poor parents have full time jobs, and when they do not it is often because they are sick or caring for a sick family member or child. Stop perpetuating the myth of "the lazy poor people" it's hateful, untrue, and the only thing it "exposes" is a real lack of basic human decency and respect on the part of the accusers.

Jane Akre Injury Board Community Member
Posted by Jane Akre
Tuesday, December 09, 2008 11:21 AM EST

Your editor too is very concerned about the number of people who are so willing and eager to hate the poor. It's part of a societal sickness we are experiencing, IMHO.

Consider that a well-off even wealthy child can have an impoverished environment as well. With no parental or caretaker interaction or nurturing, a wealthy child can actually have a more impoverished rearing than those Cambodian orphans.

Remember its Abuse AND Neglect that defines child abuse. It sometimes has to do with the parents who are poor and therefore depressed, stressed, uneducated, and without options - but the materially wealthy can experience those things as well, therefore be poor providers for the children.

Maybe it comes down to how we define wealth?

Comments for this article are closed.

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