Bad news: Poverty affects children’s brains. Good news: Public policy can have a major beneficial impact on reducing these effects
This has actually been known for some time, but recent evidence is compelling. A recent study from Harvard University suggests public policies aiming to reduce the harms of poverty may lead to larger brains in children. Scientists say that underscores the need for a strong social safety net. Researchers looked at brain images from 11,000 children in 17 different states that offered a range of health benefits and cash assistance to low income families. On average, they found children in states with generous benefits had a larger hippocampus, the section of the brain involved in learning, memory and emotion processing. They also had fewer mental health and behavioral problems. Harvard psychologist Kate McLaughlin said scientists have long found an association between poverty and brain size.
The question we had is whether the magnitude of that association — so how much [connection] growing up in a family that’s living in poverty has on a child’s brain development varies based on where you live.
The research team found almost a 40% difference in brain size among low-income children living in states with the most generous benefits, such as California, versus the least generous, like Oklahoma. That was after accounting for cost of living. They noted there could be other explanations. For instance, states with generous benefits may also invest more in education, and perhaps that impacts brain development. But they tried to control for most factors. Of course many policy makers try to hand wave this sort of finding away. One of the authors answers:
Well, you know, [some say] that could just be the individual family not using the right discipline strategies. In my experience, people have a harder time pretending that these associations aren’t meaningful and important when you show them that they’re having an impact at a biological level on how children’s brains are developing.
We now realize that a child’s brain is continuing to develop to at least age 18 and probably beyond. It’s self-evident to me a child’s surroundings, and in particular including diet, affects how the developing brain ends up. The stress of being poor, of not knowing where your next meal is coming from, activates hormone pathways in the body which arose through evolution as “fight or flight” responses to save you from an attacking wild animal. When they are activated chronically, bad things happen in the body.
It’s long past time we as a society do more to fix this.