Thursday, August 20, 2009

Poverty Is Poison

There is an interesting and informative comment to this post.

Published: February 18, 2008

“Poverty in early childhood poisons the brain.” That was the opening of an article in Saturday’s Financial Times, summarizing research presented last week at the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

As the article explained, neuroscientists have found that “many children growing up in very poor families with low social status experience unhealthy levels of stress hormones, which impair their neural development.” The effect is to impair language development and memory — and hence the ability to escape poverty — for the rest of the child’s life.

So now we have another, even more compelling reason to be ashamed about America’s record of failing to fight poverty.

L. B. J. declared his “War on Poverty” 44 years ago. Contrary to cynical legend, there actually was a large reduction in poverty over the next few years, especially among children, who saw their poverty rate fall from 23 percent in 1963 to 14 percent in 1969.

But progress stalled thereafter: American politics shifted to the right, attention shifted from the suffering of the poor to the alleged abuses of welfare queens driving Cadillacs, and the fight against poverty was largely abandoned.

In 2006, 17.4 percent of children in America lived below the poverty line, substantially more than in 1969. And even this measure probably understates the true depth of many children’s misery.


According to one recent estimate, American children born to parents in the bottom fourth of the income distribution have almost a 50 percent chance of staying there — and almost a two-thirds chance of remaining stuck if they’re black.

That’s not surprising. Growing up in poverty puts you at a disadvantage at every step.

I’d bracket those new studies on brain development in early childhood with a study from the National Center for Education Statistics, which tracked a group of students who were in eighth grade in 1988. The study found, roughly speaking, that in modern America parental status trumps ability: students who did very well on a standardized test but came from low-status families were slightly less likely to get through college than students who tested poorly but had well-off parents.

refereced article,dwp_uuid=df217c24-3011-11da-ba9f-00000e2511c8,print=yes.html

Poverty mars formation of infant brains

By Clive Cookson in Boston

Published: February 16 2008 01:39 | Last updated: February 16 2008 01:39

Poverty in early childhood poisons the brain, the American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting in Boston heard on Friday.

Neuroscientists said many children growing up in very poor families with low social status experience unhealthy levels of stress hormones, which impair their neural development. That effect is on top of any damage caused by inadequate nutrition and exposure to environmental toxins.

Studies by several US universities have revealed the pervasive harm done to the brain, particularly between the ages of six months and three years, from low socio-economic status.

Martha Farah, director of the University of Pennsylvania’s centre for cognitive neuroscience, said: “The biggest effects are on language and memory. The finding about memory impairment – the ability to encounter a pattern and remember it – really surprised us.”

Jack Shonkoff, director of Harvard University’s centre on the developing child, said policymakers had to take note of the research because “the foundation of all social problems later in life takes place in the early years”.

“The earlier you intervene [to counteract the impact of poverty], the better the outcome in the end, because the brain loses its plasticity [adaptability] as the child becomes older,” he said.

Stress hormone levels tend to be higher in young children from poor families than in children growing up in middle-class and wealthy families, said Prof Shonkoff. Excessive levels of these hormones disrupt the formation of synaptic connections between cells in the developing brain – and even affect its blood supply. “They literally disrupt the brain architecture,” he said.

The findings explain why relatively unfocused programmes to prepare poor children for school, such as Head Start in the US, have produced only modest results, the scientists said.

More focused interventions could give more substantial benefits, said Courtney Stevens of the University of Oregon. She gave the preliminary results of an eight-week programme aimed at poor parents of pre-school children in Oregon.

Parents attended weekly coaching sessions to improve their family communications skills and show them how to control their children’s bad behaviour. At the end of the programme, participating parents reported big reductions in family stress compared with a control group that did not take part. Brain scans of the children suggested neural improvements, too.

“Our findings are important because they suggest that kids who are at high risk for school failure can be helped through these interventions,” said Dr Stevens. “Even with these small numbers of children, the parent training appears very promising.”

Well-tailored programmes can help, Prof Shonkoff agreed. But in the end, the only way to remove the “toxic” impact of poverty on young brains is to abolish poverty itself, he said.


run75441 said...


Just followed your link over here to at least comment on Poverty, Inequality, and the resulting Upward Mobility. An interesting paper you may find intriguing is Tom Hertz'a paper “Understanding Mobility in America," which gives a sound assessment of what is wrong in America when it comes to mobility and the Horatio Alger present day myth.

No one talks about the results of the inability to climb the ladder of mobility. I will add a short quote and my interpretation of it.

"Tom Hertz noted (“Understanding Mobility in America,” 2006 Table 1); of all those born into the lowest quartile of income, 46% had a more likely outcome of remaining there as adults. If black and born into the lowest quartile, the likelihood of remaining there was 63%. James Gilligan takes it a step further in his study (“Reflections on A National Epidemic – Violence” Gilligan); quoting H.A. Bulhan’s reference to structural violence. “For every 1% increase in unemployment in the United States, there was an increased mortality of 37,000 deaths per year (natural and violent) including ~2,000 more suicides and homicides than might otherwise occur.” Or explained in simpler terms, for every 1% increase in Unemployment, we can expect to see increases in the mortality rate by 2%, homicides and imprisonments by 6%, and infant mortality by 5%. Since WWII, the unemployment rate for blacks has been twice as high as that of whites. (Frantz Fanon and the Psychology of Oppression; H.A Bulhan; Mental Illness and the Economy, M.H Brenner). Hertz points to a decrease in income mobility and Bulhan points to higher crime, violence, and death rates due to unemployment. Both Hertz and Bulhan point out the impact for those of the lowest income brackets and black minorities even more so. The resultant increases in violence, homicides and imprisonments can be attributed more so to poverty relating imprisonments as a result of being tough on crime. Hypertension amongst those living in dangerous urbanized environments is also higher when compared to those of high income environments. Given the last 8 years of poor economy; is it any wonder that death rates are higher due to violence or natural causes, more people are going to prison, more of those going to prison are black minorities, and more are going and staying longer in prison due to stringent sentencing."

From there I would read Elizabeth Warren's "The Coming Collapse of the Middle Class."


Patricia said...

Thank you very much for your comment.

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