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poverty affects the brain - could even be a contributor to bad parenting - agree with the study?

(70 Posts)
fridayfridayfriday Wed 30-Oct-13 16:27:13

The Lasting Impacts of Poverty on the Brain


Poverty shapes people in some hard-wired ways that we're only now beginning to understand. Back in August, we wrote about some provocative new research that found that poverty imposes a kind of tax on the brain. It sucks up so much mental bandwidth – capacity spent wrestling with financial trade-offs, scarce resources, the gap between bills and income – that the poor have fewer cognitive resources left over to succeed at parenting, education, or work. Experiencing poverty is like knocking 13 points off your IQ as you try to navigate everything else. That's like living, perpetually, on a missed night of sleep.

That finding offered a glimpse of what poverty does to a person during a moment in time. Picture a mother trying to accomplish a single task (making dinner) while preoccupied with another (paying the rent on time). But scientists also suspect that poverty's disadvantages – and these moments – accumulate across time. Live in poverty for years, or even generations, and its effects grow more insidious. Live in poverty as a child, and it affects you as an adult, too.

Poor children had problems regulating their emotions as adults.

Some new research about the long-term arc of poverty, particularly on the brain, was recently published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, and these findings offer a useful complement to the earlier study. In this new paper, researchers from the University of Illinois at Chicago, Cornell, the University of Michigan, and the University of Denver followed children from the age of 9 through their early 20s.

Those who grew up poor later had impaired brain function as adults—a disadvantage researchers could literally see in the activity of the amygdala and prefrontal cortex on an fMRI scan. Children who were poor at age 9 had greater activity in the amygdala and less activity in the prefrontal cortex at age 24 during an experiment when they were asked to manage their emotions while looking at a series of negative photos. This is significant because the two regions of the brain play a critical role in how we detect threats and manage stress and emotions.

Poor children, in effect, had more problems regulating their emotions as adults (regardless of what their income status was at 24). These same patterns of "dysregulation" in the brain have been observed in people with depression, anxiety disorders, aggression and post-traumatic stress disorders.

Over the course of the longitudinal study – which included 49 rural, white children of varying incomes – these same poor children were also exposed to chronic sources of stress like violence and family turmoil, or crowded and low-quality housing. Those kinds of stressors, the researchers theorize, may help explain the link between income status in childhood and how well the brain functions later on. That theory, they write, is consistent with the idea that "early experiences of poverty become embedded within the organism, setting individuals on lifelong trajectories."

To add some of these findings together: Poverty taxes the ability of parents to do all kinds of things, including care for their children. And the developmental challenges that children face in a home full of stressed adults may well influence the adults that they, themselves, become

SaucyJack Wed 30-Oct-13 18:39:03

I also think having no money means that you're far less likely to have any quality of life or experiences of culture or socialization.

Museums/art galleries/yadda yadda might be free in London, but getting out and about to enrich the brain is beyond the reach of a good many people no matter how well-meaning the parents are.

whois Wed 30-Oct-13 18:41:48

Way to go azzbiscuit, clearly demonstrating your own frightening lack of intellect and inability to look at a complex issue.

Are you really serious azzbiscuit? Think about the situation for a second, yeah? You have £x of costs (food, electricity, rent, water etc) and your income is £x-y. £x-y is never going to cover £x so you are CONSTANTLY juggling paying a bit here and a bit there, buying a hot of food a bit of electricity 'robbing Peter to pay Paul' as it were.

Seemingly small decisions such as 'shall I get the bus because my DC are tired and it's raining' become huge decisions as you weigh up where you can cut back on if you do get the bus. Every penny needs to be accounted for.

This is reality for a lot of people.

But yeah, actually, fuck em. The poor are all just feckless and really shit at budgeting aren't they? <grrrr!>

LittleRobots Wed 30-Oct-13 18:46:19

It wouldn't surprise me. I'm incredibly well educated but due to ill health and redundancies ended up with a new baby in a dodgy flat. Yes a lot of emotional energy was made making financial decisions. When you have a financial buffer them you can buy clothes not worrying if they're perfect as you can buy something else if not. Not that you will but you have that safety:/

When you're broke you weigh up the cost of the tube journeys and 1 pound entrance to get to toddlers. I'd had money before so it was a completely new kind of stress.

As for parenting I honestly think social circumstances make a difference. Its far easier to parent when you have a warm house, safe environment, money for a good meal, and aren't constantly pre occupied with worry about money, impact on children, if you should move etc.

I thought that sometimes about parenting classes aimed in poor areas. In many cases I think its the circumstances making life tough and leading to bad decisions. A very tired stressed brain doesn't have the same capacity to play as someone without the same pressures.

I often thought money would be better spent trying to improve social conditions rather than some of the patronizing parentingcourses.

So my experience, as an educated middle class mother who fell on hard times would correlate.

notthefirstagainstthewall Wed 30-Oct-13 18:54:36

Presumably the brain is capable of change at many stages of life.

If your child discovers "a way out "such as University or a successful career (despite a brain warped by poverty)they can change their brain function again.

Brains aren't fixed are they? Otherwise people would never get better from depression/strokes/accidents etc

FutTheShuckUp Wed 30-Oct-13 19:13:25

It's not a new concept

sturdyoak Wed 30-Oct-13 19:18:39

It's not a new concept

Yep we'll get talk of the 'deserving poor' next and whilst we're at it the 'Divine Right of Kings'...

All that good breeding, the privilege passing down from generation to generation, even at a genetic level.

(Thank God they've discovered Epigenetics, so not quite set in stone..otherwise where would we be?)

NoComet Wed 30-Oct-13 20:30:37

The trouble is, I believe, the epigenetic responses to things like stress and poor diet are not in a possible direction.

ShowMeYourTARDIS Wed 30-Oct-13 20:49:16

Presumably the brain is capable of change at many stages of life.

The first 5 years have the strongest influence on brain development. Yes, you can change brain functioning even in severely abused and neglected children older than that, but it becomes very very difficult after 10ish.

sturdyoak Wed 30-Oct-13 20:53:29

Epigenetics changes can go both ways, positive and negative.

Whilst stress and diet can affect us for the worse, positive lifestyle changes such as appropriate diet and learning how to cope well with stress, can affect us for the better.

sturdyoak Wed 30-Oct-13 20:57:24

Yes, you can change brain functioning even in severely abused and neglected children older than that, but it becomes very very difficult after 10ish.

Please do not write people off. Some people do succeed against all the odds.

ZZZenagain Wed 30-Oct-13 21:00:59

thankfully I have not experienced poverty first-hand but I have had times when I was worrying so much about something that I wasn't really able to get on with anything very well. Constant worry about how to manage financially would really block you and wear you out. I can see how that works for an adult. Presumably the worry and stress of the parent transmits itself to the child and causes a similar effect.

sturdyoak Wed 30-Oct-13 21:19:22

This book is good. Really makes you think concerning the ethics, political motivations, ethics and implications, in relation to scientific pursuit.

Lazyjaney Wed 30-Oct-13 21:25:14

I suspect it's partly correlation, partly causation - there is no doubt things are tougher with no money, but also it's very obvious that some contributory behaviours that drive bad parenting are also more likely to drive poverty.

HellMouthCusty Wed 30-Oct-13 21:30:32

imagine then wondering if you should heat your house for a cold night o9r feed your kids

thats just monday

Imagine then you have to think about that same thing on tuesday

Then wednesday sophie needs some new school shoes becuase hers are literally got holes in

Imagine on thursday all the kids in Joshuas class are going on a trip to the local wildlife park - its nothing fancy but its £3.50 you haven't got.
Josh has to stay behind in the year below as there are no teachers to teach him on his own. Josh feels embarrassed, mortified and josh hates you.

Friday Sophie is now getting called 'Tramp' at school and some of the girls are picking on her, she cries when she comes home. Josh still hates you

Saturday - thank god, sophie can wear her pumps. Josh's mate is going to maccy D's with his mum, he asks if he can go, and you are loath to say no, becuase he has had so many knock backs recently. What do you do? You say to josh that you haven't got any change on you at the moment.

Sunday, school uniforms need washing, and ironing. It is pissing down outside

the kids need a good bath

you can't afford to put the hot water on

you can't afford to put the heating on

you are in your emergency leccy money - when the Electric meter runs out - it runs out until you get your tax credits monday

Monday - no money in the bank
you phone up the benefits office, they tell you its been stopped, they give some bullshit explaination
you now have to go to town to see them it is an emergency

there is nothing they can do but send you out new forms they say

but that will take ages you say - you need to speak to someone urgently you say

they 'advise' you to borrow money of family

You tell them you haven't got any family


tell me this shit wouldnt get you down

day in
day out
day in
day out

it isn't any single thing in isolation, it is the cumulative effect of everything

i haven't even mentioned any special needs, child falling behind at school, child fighting at school,

any of the above trying to work part time where you can get it on a zero hour contact, not knowing if you are working next week

or any childcare issues

or throw into the mix an ex partner

until you have had all the cushions out on the sofa looking for change so you can buy a packet of pasta or emptied your kids money boxes or the 1.34p they have saved so you can buy some electric - you cannot possibly possibly comprehend the black cloud that engulfs your whole world

sturdyoak Wed 30-Oct-13 21:48:52

Thing is Hell would you want your children to be written off as helpless causes or assumptions to be made about their ability to control their emotions? Would you want parenting ability to be questioned purely due to income? Labelled a risk factor?

The worse case scenario is all this and any hope for the future to be taken away too.

ShowMeYourTARDIS Wed 30-Oct-13 21:53:20


It is not impossible. That's why I said it's "very very difficult". It is better to identify at-risk children (and families) as soon as possible so the family unit can get the help they need.

I would definitely not "write off" an older child, or even an adult. It is just easier for everyone if interventions occur earlier rather than later.

CaterpillarCara Wed 30-Oct-13 22:03:15

But what do you mean "write them off as helpless causes"?

Surely this research is about understanding what problems poverty causes and then hopefully alleviating it. I don't see any conclusion that says "so in conclusion, the children of the poor are hopeless cases to be ignored".

If Hell's children do get stressed about something at university, say, maybe it is helpful to know that some stresses may feel more stressful to them than to others, for example. Not to write them off, but to give extra empathy?

sturdyoak Wed 30-Oct-13 22:09:17

TARDIS that is one way of looking at it. However since the science concerning brain mapping is incomplete, the bio-semantics not fully understood, this intervention, is experimental at best. It is a fundamental human right not to be experimented on without your consent.

Help, yes. However this should be in the form of financial help, if indeed it is the effects of poverty that are being tackled. If not, well, as I have said the science is by no means complete. Read the book up thread, I recommended, for some of the past horrors done in the name of science. Making assumptions about a persons mental capacity and linking this with income is only the start.

sturdyoak Wed 30-Oct-13 22:12:38

One person's extra empathy is another person's treating someone as inevitably inferior. It is a fine line between the two and one worth noting in order to stay on the right side of it.

manicinsomniac Wed 30-Oct-13 22:30:15

I totally agree with sturdyoak

I believe that the study could be valid.

But I think the negative outcomes from said study will outweight any support that might come from it. It's not going to change the fact that people are poor, just give both poor people and others another stick to beat themselves/them with.

ShowMeYourTARDIS Wed 30-Oct-13 22:41:08


Yes, I meant interventions such as additional financial help, food boxes, transportation, job training, childcare options etc. No experimentation involved.

There has been a lot more research about the developing brain in recent years. Everything I've read says that trauma, especially prolonged trauma, has a more severe effect on the young brain than an older brain.

I'm American so I'm not familiar with the British welfare system but it's crap here. The government is trying to cut food stamps by $40 billion and 1 in 5 children already go to bed hungry. sad Thankfully, it is unlikely to pass.

HellMouthCusty Wed 30-Oct-13 22:47:57

Thing is Hell would you want your children to be written off as helpless causes or assumptions to be made about their ability to control their emotions?

no, but children are every single day - they just are, our school systems do it daily.

Would you want parenting ability to be questioned purely due to income?
no, but they are. the parenting ability of people in poverty is questioned - becuase they are in poverty.

Labelled a risk factor?

no, however there are quite clearly risks associated with poverty that need to be addressed and this requires public money.

The worse case scenario is all this and any hope for the future to be taken away too -

for many this is already the case sadly.

sturdyoak Wed 30-Oct-13 22:50:25

It is not always so clear cut here. Due to the targeted funding schools receive that is to be spent for children that receive free school meals, the link between poverty and poor educational attainment is already assumed.

It is up to schools how they spend this targeted funding. Unfortunately some of it is spent on badly thought out 'Nurture Groups' which seem to employ every new Pop psychology fad going. Makes you question whether it is the label of poverty that results in these children receiving an inferior education, the confusion caused by pseudo psychological practices causing some barriers to healthy emotional development.

HellMouthCusty Wed 30-Oct-13 22:57:11


are you saying the label of poverty itself maketh poor children badly educated?

Ghostsgowoooh Wed 30-Oct-13 22:59:04

We've also upended our old and battered second hand sofa and slit open the fabric at the bottom to get at any money that had gone down there. Found a fiver once and we were overjoyed.

Thats poverty for you.

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