Poverty and the Brain

Statistics show that poverty has negative outcomes on children. We explore why this is by looking at how poverty impacts brain development. 

By Momentous Institute | Oct 08, 2018

You may have heard the statistics: children who grow up in poverty have worse educational outcomes, poorer long-term health, or more behavioral or emotional challenges. What is it about poverty that can cause such pervasive negative outcomes on children?

Let’s take a look at the brain.

Children who grow up in poverty often lack necessary components of a healthy life. Among them are nutrition, sleep, stable housing, predictability, and access to medical care and mental health services. Each of these impact the development of the brain.

When children grow up in poverty, they often have worse nutritional intake than that of children in more affluent or middle class communities. This can be due to the availability, accessibility, and cost of healthy food. Many communities don’t have stores with a selection of healthy foods. Many families don’t have kitchens to cook meals in, or time to eat at home, and instead eat fast food for its convenience. Many families simply can’t afford fresh fruits and vegetables or are living in food deserts. The brain and body rely on healthy nutrition to function at their best.

Children in poverty also often have sleep disruptions. Parents who work multiple jobs or have inconsistent schedules may rely on family members as caretakers and pick up their children late or wake them up early to accommodate their work schedules. Single parents may find that the only time they can shop for groceries is late at night after work, and with no one to watch the kids, must take them along. Families with many people living in the house may have noises from talking, television, or people coming and going which might disrupt a child’s sleep, especially if a child shares a room or sleeps in or near a common area of the home. A poor night’s sleep is damaging to a young child’s brain, and a series of sleep disruptions can be particularly challenging. It may impair a child’s ability to pay attention at school, focus and learn.

Many children who grow up in poverty have unstable housing arrangements. Families can lose their homes if they don’t have enough money to pay the bills. Family members may move in and out of homes when hard times hit. Children may have an apartment one day and be sleeping in a shelter the next. Even for children who don’t lose their home, they may have necessary repairs that are cost-prohibitive but important, such as a water leak, mold, or a broken heating or air conditioning unit. Any instability in housing can impact a child’s brain because it wires the brain to be on high alert. The child may never be able to relax. And when a brain can’t relax, it can’t focus on higher-level functioning such as reasoning and problem solving.

Children in poverty can also have limited – or no – access to medical care or mental health services. Many children don’t receive the preventative care necessary for a healthy life, and instead only seek medical attention when faced with illness or injury. Preventative care, along with healthy diet and exercise, are what limit illness or injury in the first place. Yet many communities simply don’t have pediatricians or specialists. Many families don’t have health insurance that could cover the high costs of medical care. And even more communities don’t have mental health providers, let alone screenings or referrals for these services when necessary.

In short, the brain is wired first to protect, and then to learn. In the center of the brain is the amygdala. The amygdala functions as an alarm system. It responds to threats (or perceived threats) and helps the body react. The amygdala is designed to protect the body from harm. The amygdala is very useful when faced with an immediate threat, such as a baseball flying towards your face. But once you duck and avoid that threat, the amygdala calms down and the prefrontal cortex comes back online. The prefrontal cortex is what helps us pay attention and learn. It controls our logical thinking.

When children are faced with any number of poverty side effects, such as when they are hungry, tired, sick, or uncertain about what might happen next, the amygdala is hard at work protecting them from harm. However, the amygdala is simply not designed for long-term use. A child needs the amygdala to protect him, but also needs the amygdala to quiet down in order to access his prefrontal cortex.

Think about a time in your life when you were extremely stressed. How did your brain and body react to this stress? Were you able to focus on important tasks? Were you able to make clear decisions? Were you functioning at your best? Were you managing all of your responsibilities and taking on new information easily? Imagine if that stressful situation never resolved. What toll would it take?

The short of it is this: it’s not poverty in and of itself that is particularly damaging to a young child, but it’s all of the many side effects that can ultimately influence a child’s brain.

It’s not all hopeless. Each of these elements can be addressed, and the brain can be re-wired for success. It may seem daunting when working with children who come from families living in poverty. It may seem impossible to address the root causes and really make a difference. But the truth is that many children who live in poverty need their most basics needs met first – healthy food, sleep and predictability. When these needs are met, the amygdala can go back to its job as an alert system, and the prefrontal cortex can do its job.