Why It Might Be Time to Treat Child Poverty Like a Medical Condition

New research reveals that kids growing up in low-income homes have less-developed brains than their wealthier peers.

(Photo: Carolyn Cole/Getty Images)

Jul 29, 2015· 2 MIN READ
Culture and education editor Liz Dwyer has written about race, parenting, and social justice for several national publications. She was previously education editor at Good.

We’re pretty used to thinking of poverty as an economic or social problem: If people are sleeping on the streets or in cars, the logical fix is to provide housing. If children are getting school supplies and clothing from charity drives or don’t know where their next meal is coming from, paying their parents a living wage is a common-sense solution. But a new study reveals poverty might also need to be classified—and treated—as a medical condition.

According to research published last week in JAMA Pediatrics, the brains of kids growing up in homes under the federal poverty level—about $24,000 for a family of four—are less developed than those of children living in more affluent conditions.

The researchers studied MRI images of the brains of a nationally representative sample of 400 healthy children and young adults between the ages of four and 22. They found that the scans of kids who grew up in poverty tend to have less gray matter, the brain tissue that processes information. The more impoverished the children are, the less gray matter they have.

“It was really when we started getting down into real poverty, real abject poverty, that we started seeing a difference,” Seth Pollak, a psychology professor at the University of Wisconsin–Madison and coauthor of the study, told Bloomberg Business. As a result, Pollak said, he has come to believe that being poor has the same effect on children as does eating lead paint.

More than 20 percent of children in the U.S. are growing up in poverty and “are getting too little of things we need to develop the brain and too much of things that inhibit brain growth,” Pollak said. Most kids living in low-income families have no books at home, and their families are better able to afford a 50-cent package of nutritionally bankrupt ramen noodles than they are a $4 pint of vitamin-packed strawberries—if fresh fruits and vegetables are even available in their neighborhood.

Or imagine being a little kid growing up in a place like Chicago’s violence-racked neighborhood of Englewood. It’s so dangerous there that kids are afraid to go outside. You might walk to school scared that you’ll become another gun-violence statistic—so good luck doing well on the state standardized test.

Its not impossible for a child growing up in poverty to achieve academically. But Pollak and his team found that missing gray matter could account for as much as 20 percent of the achievement gap, the difference between the test scores of low-income kids—usually children of color—and those of wealthier students.

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“We like to believe in the United States that education is an equalizer, that everyone has a fair shot,” Pollak said. This is sort of suggesting that we have some people entering kindergarten not getting a fair shot.

To help level the playing field and prevent long-term impaired academic functioning, the researchers suggest providing low-income families with additional resources aimed at remediating early childhood environments. What that would look like remains to be seen, but perhaps future visits to the doctors office—or to medical clinics—will include resources that can help ensure kids brains develop as they should, no matter how much money their family has.