By Afrosapiens, 1163 words.
Poverty has long been associated with educational under-achievement and various behavioral issues. Although the underlying causes of these differences have been at the center of a nature vs.. Nurture debate for decades, it’s only recently that insights from neuroscience have allowed better understanding of how poverty affects the brain. Observations from MRI scans show slower brain growth in children growing up in low SES households (poor and near-poor) which results in reduced volume and grey matter thickness in the frontal and parietal cortices as well as lower amygdala and hippocampus size. All those affected brain areas are crucial to learning and social functioning as they govern cognitive and executive functions such as language, working and long-term memory, attention, impulse control, emotional management and information processing.
Although research using animal experiments indicate that the relationship between poverty and altered brain development is causal, it is yet not clear which aspect of poverty impacts which function the most. The most cited factors are stress, trauma, low stimulation, poor child-parent relationship, poor nutrition and poor health. Although it is also possible that genetics play a role in individual susceptibility to these factors, the idea that genetic background cause people to be poor in the first place and then have their brains damaged by environmental factors is not supported by science and belongs to pseudo-Darwinian creationism, especially since such deficits appear to be reversible to a substantial degree due to brain plasticity.
Various interventions to improve or prevent decrease in cognitive and executive function have shown good and lasting results in reducing behavioral issues and increasing school performance and job market participation. Interventions can take various forms, first of all, since poverty is lack of financial resources, income supports to families with children are an obvious means of limiting children’s exposure to poverty-related adversity. Although this is absolute common sense, conservative ideologues have managed to convince a large part of the public that pro-poor policies would in fact be harmful to the needy whereas pro-rich ones would mysteriously benefit them.
Besides redistribution, executive function coaching in the form of computer or non-computer games, aerobic exercise and sports, music, martial arts and mindfulness practices as well as improvements in school curricula and teaching methods have been shown to improve social and educational outcomes. One last type of intervention that yielded good results is nurse home visits to low-income mothers of young children which had the effect of improving developmental outcomes of children by teaching mothers parenting skills and healthy practices.
These interventions aren’t to be confused with efforts at increasing IQ that caused little improvement beyond temporarily increasing IQ scores, which has no relevance in terms of life outcomes. IQ can probably benefit from increased language skills and executive function but it doesn’t seem to be the target of remedial intervention on those underlying abilities of which IQ test performance would only be a byproduct.
Now you might wonder how big a problem child poverty and its neurological consequences are in contemporary societies. Although the most extreme and widespread child poverty is seen in developing countries, industrialized countries like the USA, Israel, Turkey, Chile and Spain have rates of prevalence above 20%, whereas countries in Western Europe tend to maintain rates around or below 10%.
While informative, reported child poverty rates only include those who live below an arbitrarily defined poverty threshold in a given year, but the effects on poverty likely affect those living only slightly above poverty line and do not meet their developmental needs and those who have experienced poverty in the past but were living above the threshold when the figures were reported.
Within the United States, significant differences in the prevalence and the nature of child poverty exist between ethnic groups with 34% of Native Americans, 13% of Asians/Pacific Islanders, 36% of African-Americans, 31% of Hispanics and 12% of European Americans living under poverty line in 2015.
Comparing African-Americans and European Americans, the nature of poverty differed markedly with 77% of African Americans experiencing poverty at least once in their childhood and 37% living in poverty for more than 9 years.In comparison, only 30% of European American children experienced poverty while growing up, including 5% for more than 9 years. 40% of black children and 8% of white children were poor at birth. Among those born poor, 60% of African Americans and 25% of European Americans were still poor at age 17, among those not born in poverty, 20% of black children and 5% of whites were poor at age 17.
With the effects of poverty worse felt at a younger age and during long periods of time, such interracial differences in prevalence and persistence of child poverty are one plausible large contributor to the observed gaps in educational and behavioral outcomes between the two groups.
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