In my post for Blog Action Day last October, I wrote about being broke vs. poverty. Being broke is about making the wrong financial decisions which prevent you from spending for your necessities. Poverty, on the other hand, is the inability to acquire your basic needs because you don’t have access to the education, resources, or opportunities that will allow you to rise above that state. As I concluded in that article, being broke is a choice, while poverty is not.
While it’s true that some people who grew up in poverty were able to rise above it as adults, it is extremely difficult to do so. How come most poor families remain poor generation after generation? New research shows that this all has to do with the effects of stress on a child’s developing brain.
Here’s an article from The Economist exploring the results of a study:
“Children with stressed lives, then, find it harder to learn. Put pejoratively, they are stupider. It is not surprising that they do less well at school, end up poor as adults and often visit the same circumstances on their own children.”
Source: “I am just a poor boy though my story’s seldom told” from The Economist, April 2009
This is all because of a part of the brain called “working memory”. Neuroscientists discovered that the working memories of children raised in poverty are much smaller compared to those who were middle-class. This difference is significant because the capacity of one’s working memory is crucial to one’s development. According to the article, this is what working memory is for:
“[...] Working memory is the ability to hold bits of information in the brain for current use—the digits of a phone number, for example. It is crucial for comprehending languages, for reading and for solving problems.”
When a child grows up in a stressful environment, this stress suppresses the creation of new nerve cells in the brain, as well as shrinks the parts of the brain that are associated with working memory.
The study shows that these negative effects on a child’s brain were explained only by stress, rather than other aspects of poverty such as nutrition, shelter, poor access to quality education, etc. Apart from the lack of financial security, poor people are also stressed for other reasons:
“[...] it is now well established that poor adults live stressful lives, and not just for the obvious reason that poverty brings uncertainty about the future. The main reason poor people are stressed is that they are at the bottom of the social heap as well as the financial one. “
To be clear, the study doesn’t say that poor people are stupid while the middle class and wealthy are smart. What the research reveals is that a stressful environment can prevent the optimal development of a child’s brain, especially when it comes to solving problems, reading, and linguistic abilities. While overcoming poverty isn’t impossible, it can be very, very hard given these circumstances.
The research may not be comprehensive, as it doesn’t address other factors, but it’s a start. The only way we can fight poverty is if we have a concrete understanding of its causes – no matter how complex they are. If you want to read the source article from The Economist, click here.