How Poverty Affects Children’s Brains

There’s plenty of evidence that links poverty to poor academic performance, but a new study suggests that the impact of financial hardship start at birth and are detrimental to children’s cognitive development, even more so than family instability. Without adequate resources, children suffer both economic and social burdens. Poverty can also lead to family instability as the stress of financial burden can fragment family structure and lead to divorce or separation.

In the first study of its kind, researchers examined the long-term impacts of poverty on children’s mental development from birth to age five. The aim of the study was to better understand the effects of poverty and bleak living conditions on brain development and function. While most of the families studied didn’t experience persistent poverty, the 13 percent that did scored lower on mental tests than those who had never experienced financial hardship.

It was also found that children in stable two-parent families showed higher cognitive abilities than those in single -parent families. But after researchers examined other factors such as child personality, poverty level, parental education and mother’s age, no link was found between family structure and a child’s cognitive ability. However, persistent poverty did have a significant harmful impact on a child’s cognitive functioning at 5 years of age. Rather surprisingly, the study revealed that a child’s brain is more influenced by poverty than divorce or family instability.

This study supports the theory researchers have documented for decades known as the “achievement gap,” the belief that children living in poverty are more likely to have low academic performance than children from financially secure families. So how precisely does poverty affect cognitive development and academic performance? Many theories exist, but we know that compared to kids with adequate financial resources, poor children are more likely to attend lower performing schools, have fewer educational resources at home, eat low-nutrition food, and have less access to healthcare.

Based on some animal research, some theorize that brain structures change as a result of stress and are particularly affected by early-life stress. Therefore, stress induced by poverty at an early age in children could certainly have lifelong detrimental effects on the brain. Although further research is needed, this study helps us begin to understand how poverty affects the brain and may lead to poor academic performance.

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