The effects of poverty on health are indisputable. With studies demonstrating that living in poverty is worse for health on adults than obesity, smoking and binge drinking, the effects on children and childhood development are even more pronounced. In fact, according to a 2007 by Child Trends, children in the United States are more than double as likely to be poor as older adults – with black and Latino children twice as likely as their white, non-Hispanic counterparts to live in poverty.
From the start – including time in the womb – a child in poverty has less access to nutritious food and fresh produce and lower, less frequent access to medical care. While this can obviously lead to more chronic illness and not meeting growth potential, the effects of living in poverty has even worse consequences on the growing and developing brain.
The combination of poor nutrition, lack of a stable/uncrowded/non-toxic environment and constant stress is lethal. The constant presence of stress hormones changes prefrontal cortex and lead researcher Mark Kishiyama, a cognitive psychologist at the University of California-Berkeley, has said that lesions similar to those in stroke victims can be seen in children who have grown up in abject poverty. This area of the brain controls executive functions – planning, impulse and emotional control, ability to remember details and attention.
This can be seen and measured in a child’s language ability. A National Institute of Health study recorded the conversations parents had with their three year old children. The middle class children had a vocabulary that tended to be twice as wide as the children living in poverty. Another, more recent study that is set to appear in the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience used electroencephalographs to measure brain function of children while they were given the tasks of identifying shapes. The poorer children had a more difficult time with the shapes that we slightly misshapen or tilted and had difficulty blocking outside distractions – all of which are controlled by the prefrontal cortex.
Aside from stress-related brain issues that can set a child in poverty behind wealthier children, there is a much higher mortality rate. These children also have higher rates of asthma, malnutrition, diabetes and many other serious chronic illnesses. With nearly one in five American children living in poverty, it is clearly cause for concern in regards to public health policy. All hope is not lost – many social programs, when applied correctly, can lift the effects of poverty, including deeply entrenched, long-term poverty. Refining and instilling these programs is critical to helping in childhood development for those living in poor economic situations.