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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

HexU Sat 02-Nov-13 11:22:24

New scientist had article about farmers IQ changing with access to how much food and money they had either side of harvest.

There is also research showing that there is a limit to will power - it's why giving up smoking and dieting is together tends to fail and why diets are often broken towards end of day when 'will power' limit has been reached.

So I'm not surprised.

You'll also have poor nutrition affecting DC and mental abilities of adults.

Then there is the whole trap aspect - everyone who has any drive and ambition gets out leaving behind those you don't - it's a know phenomenon in geographical areas my DH having come from one.

However there are always going to be some individual who have personalities to overcome poor starts - whole idea of weed DC and orchids. The weed DC do well what ever their start in life but the orchids have genetics that attune them more to their environments - so good start they fly not good they sink more.

MurderOfGoths Sat 02-Nov-13 10:00:26

Seems like common sense that when you are under immense stress and probably very miserable that you aren't going to be totally on top form mentally, add to that the fact that you probably aren't eating well or sleeping well or in brilliant health, that's all going to contribute.

I know just one of those things in isolation makes it harder for me personally to think clearly, but in combination?

Jinsei Sat 02-Nov-13 08:44:13

Hmm, I'm not sure. I don't doubt at all that stress can take up large amounts of "mental bandwidth", and poverty can certainly lead to very high levels of stress and anxiety, so it sort of makes sense from that point of view.

However, I've worked with young people from some incredibly impoverished backgrounds in developing countries (I'm talking absolute poverty here), and their difficult backgrounds seem to be the source of all their drive and aspirations, often urged on by their parents, who see educational success as the only way out of the poverty trap.These young people have gone on to be incredibly successful. My DH came from a similar background - the son of illiterate peasant farmers. He would say that his background drove him to aspire to something better.

Perhaps it is not just poverty alone that takes up the mental energy, but the perception that there is no way out?

ILetHimKeep20Quid Sat 02-Nov-13 08:10:41

Absolutely agree.

Living in poverty isn't quickly deciding whether to buy the whole grain or the value loaf then trotting merrily on with your day. It's being reduced to tears when a pair of shoes are outgrown because replacing them means taking money from something else essential. It's an exhausting, relentless juggling act.

Laquitar Sat 02-Nov-13 01:02:02

Oh dear. Dont let the Tories see this 'research'. Next theywill sterilize the poor.
Yy to sturdy. I ve read the book, really good.

superstarheartbreaker Fri 01-Nov-13 23:33:35

Urbane...whllst I do think that employment = hapoiness it is not as simple as all that.

UrbaneLandlord Fri 01-Nov-13 23:27:51

What hasn't been mentioned in this thread is the REAL poverty that exists for 100s of millions of people in the developing world. This REAL poverty simply does not exist in this country. Anyone who believes otherwise should go and spend some time in a poor African community: that will change their perspective, as it has mine.

If poverty really "affects the brain" and causes "bad parenting", then why aren't these communities full of despondent stressed-out shells of human beings and feral children? In fact, my experience is that many of them are amongst the happiest people I have met in my life.

It is the case that the poorest communities in the UK are in fact well up the premier league of affluence on a global & historical scale. Free schools, health-care, subsidised or free accommodation in well-built & serviced flats or houses, world-class communications and transport, etc, etc, etc.

I suggest that many people of the political left continue to fundamentally fail to understand basic human nature. They wrongly believe that social equality imposed on the people by the state through taxation & redistribution will create happiness for individuals & communities.

The reality is that, for most people, there is no relationship between wealth and either happiness or mental well-being. There is, however, a very strong relationship between self-accompllshment and happiness. Unfortunately, it is often the case that state intervention to redistribute wealth through social security actually increases unhappiness because the recipients are then deprived of their sense of self-accomplishment. There are a great many individuals who would be much be much happier if their JSA was stopped and they were compelled to get on their bike and cycle to the next town to work 12 hour shifts washing dishes or sweeping the streets.

Apart from self-accomplishment, I think the other important factor in happiness & mental well-being is social-acceptance & community-belonging. The state cannot create this for its people; people have to create it for themselves. But I have experienced that this has a high presence in many VERY poor communities in the developing world where there is precious little intervention by their central state. A big factor in their own happiness and why I was made so welcome.

fanjobiscuits Thu 31-Oct-13 10:20:54

How have they dealt with the causation vs correlation question?

Preciousbane Thu 31-Oct-13 10:18:09

Message withdrawn at poster's request.

Trigglesx Thu 31-Oct-13 08:45:05

and yet the government is looking at making more cuts to those who already cannot afford to make ends meet.....


sturdyoak Thu 31-Oct-13 08:19:08

Sorry my last post was to HellMouthCusty

sturdyoak Thu 31-Oct-13 07:32:55

HellCrustyMouth I am not arguing anything, merely warning that there are dangerous implications to this kind of study. Essentially, yes, I am against 'pseudo-psychological non evidence based bullshit'.

My quote confirmed that there has been no consistent use of interventions to tackle deprivation linked poor educational attainment to support my assertion that these interventions are somewhat experimental.

Lack of regulation in my previous posts referred to interventions being undertaken on an ad hoc, piecemeal, basis in schools. Nurture groups, discussing 'feelings' etc can be lead by TAs with little or no psychological training for example.

Yes, there may be a link between poverty and poor educational achievement however when a study aims to show detrimental changes in brain development of the people who face financial challenges I am reminded of Foucault's views, regarding the disturbing relationship between power and being deemed qualified to label somebody as sane or insane.

I am not saying this report is guilty of this, however it does not take much of a stretch of the imagination to see the danger in the study's implications...

HellMouthCusty Thu 31-Oct-13 00:05:17

the science of what is not complete?

i never stated they were all national initiatives

you have not stated what 'regulation' means in your context

the report does indeed state your quote - THEN states what i posted above.

You don't state the reason for the quote you posted - what are you arguing?

there are clear evidence based indicators that poverty is linked to poor educational standards. JRF is just one of many texts you can find to support this.

however i am still unsure as to whether you have an opposing argument and if you do perhaps you could present some evidence for it.

What JRF state is that the interventions did not have a joined up coherent approach to tackling the problem not that the problem does not exist.

if you are stating that the original report in the op is pseudo psychological non evidence based bullshit, i would tend to agree.

thecatfromjapan Wed 30-Oct-13 23:23:53

I'm side-stepping the whole educational achievement-poverty thing.

Just want to say that I err towards thinking of poverty as trauma -inducing and I am thinking this report would seem to confirm that.

RhondaJean Wed 30-Oct-13 23:21:56

Isnt a lot of it to do with maternal and infantile cortisol levels?

sturdyoak Wed 30-Oct-13 23:15:53

Not all interventions are National Initiatives. The report you cited, says,

Initiatives such as Excellence in Cities, Connexions, Sure Start, Educational Maintenance Allowance and full service extended schools focus mainly on immediate social factors and the problems these cause directly for individuals and communities. These interventions have been undertaken in a piecemeal fashion and so far have had only a very partial impact in breaking the link between poverty and poor educational attainment.

I do not like pseudo psychological, non evidence based, practice. The Science is not complete.

HellMouthCusty Wed 30-Oct-13 23:09:44

national initiatives such as Sure Start had robust reporting mechanisms.

Im not sure i follow your argument at all.

sturdyoak Wed 30-Oct-13 23:05:34

The interventions are not regulated. Schools decide how to spend their targeted funding.

sturdyoak Wed 30-Oct-13 23:02:25

Not to mention the damage caused to people experiencing financial hardship through validation of the practise of labelling them as bad parents who cannot be trusted to control their emotions. Not great for establishing a good communicative relationship with their child's school or indeed any other professionals.

HellMouthCusty Wed 30-Oct-13 23:00:45

"There is no single explanation for why learners from
poor backgrounds do badly in educational terms.
Rather, there are multiple factors implicated at the
individual, immediate social and broader societal levels.
There are no magic bullets that will enable such learners
to perform as well and derive the same educational
benefits as their more advantaged peers. Instead, what
are needed are interventions which address the full
range of factors and which operate at all three levels. "

from JRF links between poverty and education

what is noticable from the JRF report (2007) is that many of the interventions they cite, have now not got funding

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.

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


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

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 22:47:57

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.

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.

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