What if I told you I could look at your brain and tell whether or not you were poor growing up? Would you believe me? What if I added there was a distinctly possible way to inoculate children against the detrimental effects of poverty with a few policy changes? It has been well observed that poor children tend to perform at lower academic levels than their richer classmates, and while environmental influences can in large part explain this gap, a child’s environment also impacts brain development and subsequent cognitive ability. MRI scans of children’s brains across socioeconomic levels revealed poor kids had thinner subregions of the prefrontal cortex; this is the part of the brain involved with executive functions, or, a set of cognitive processing skills. Additionally, richer kids had more brain surface area than did poor kids, and household income was found to correlate with the brain volume in the areas of the brain responsible for executive functions (frontal lobe), language comprehension and sound processing (temporal lobe) and memory (hippocampus). This is all to say, rich kids have bigger brains with thicker connections within key areas for academic success while poor kids are subject to cognitive delays while also being more likely to also become impoverished and have lesser health outcomes… It doesn’t seem fair, does it?

For the naysayers and disbelievers out there, you’d be right to point out correlation does not imply causation, but the environment of poverty has undeniable effects on the developing brain. Poor parents endure a “mental tax” associated with poverty and its subsequent stressors and this tax inhibits their ability to function in ideal parental roles; their children then, instead of being raised in a supportive and stimulating environment, are often exposed more to conflict, withdrawal,
and hardship. Pediatrician and Californian Surgeon General Dr. Nadine Burke Harris has devoted much of her clinical career to exploring the long-term effects of stress on the developing brain and her findings serve to support the notion that stress has deleterious effects on children that can stunt them emotionally, cognitively, and even physically. Poor kids are not innately less intelligent than rich kids, nor are their parents simply less capable of escaping poverty as these brain differences remain when accounting for parental IQ. Poverty creates a vicious cycle perpetuating generational trauma and it is nearly impossible to escape, at least not without help.

Neuroscientist Kimberly Noble of Columbia University discovered in her 2005 study how only a $4,000 increase in familial income over the first two years of a child’s life correlates with higher adult earnings and more time spent in the work force. She is currently working on a clinical trial to elucidate how increases in income alter brain development, but the study will take five years to complete and children are in need of help now. Some policies are currently in place to help uplift families out of poverty such as housing vouchers and the American Dreams Account Act, an amendment to the Elementary and Secondary Education Act aimed at promoting college savings for low- and middle-income children, but we as a society would be remiss to not push for major expansion of these policies and more. Investing in a society’s youth is one of the best ways to promote economic, social, and political growth and this trend is well recognized by the UN and other developed countries in Scandinavia such as Denmark, Finland, Norway, and Sweden.

The University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Institute for Research on Poverty asserts countries are often judged by the way it treats its children, and if the United States has the highest levels of child poverty and the lowest level of investing in its children when compared to other developed countries, the United States falls very short of the title “best country in the world.” If America truly
wants this title, its people need to focus efforts on expanding income support and work-enabling policies while denouncing policies intended to keep the poor, poor, and the rich, rich.

-Natalie Azzam, ABSN, BS

Natalie graduated from GWU’s ABSN Program in May 2022 and hopes to one day work in pediatric critical care

Join our network and get current research and curriculum.

Sign up for our newsletter to get recent blog posts, research updates and upcoming events.