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Brain Studies Highlight Importance of Anti-Poverty Policies for Children

August 6, 2015 at 7:45 PM

New studies using brain scan technology vividly illustrate the harm associated with growing up poor.  These findings underscore the importance of policies to improve poor children’s environments, scientists say.

Children living in poverty had an average of 7 to 10 percent less grey matter in the frontal lobe, temporal lobe, and hippocampus — areas of the brain tied to learning and educational functioning — than children above 150 percent of the poverty line, according to the latest study, from the Journal of the American Medical Association.  Accordingly, children with less grey matter in these areas tended to do worse on academic tests.  These shortfalls in brain volume explained 15 to 20 percent of the gap in academic achievement scores between children from lower- and higher-income families, the study found.

Moreover, the study, which examined 389 generally healthy children ages 4 to 22 from six areas of the country, likely captures only some of poverty’s many effects.  Because it screened out children with certain health problems that poverty may cause, such as lead poisoning and low birth weight, it likely understates the negative outcomes associated with growing up poor, the authors caution. 

Childhood environment makes all the difference, they suggest, noting that the areas of the brain where they found these poverty effects tend to grow rapidly after birth, change structure throughout childhood, and are thought to be particularly influenced by childhood conditions.

The scientists point to evidence that income-boosting programs such as the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) affect children’s outcomes.  Those findings linked an expansion in the EITC, for example, with gains in middle school reading and math test scores.  Prior studies also found sustained effects of the EITC and the related Child Tax Credit on high school completion and college entry.  (Without action by lawmakers, however, millions of low-income families will lose all or part of their EITC and CTC after 2017.)  Another study found that young children with access to the food stamp program (now SNAP) showed strong improvements many years later on a range of outcomes, including an 18-percentage-point increase in high school completion. 

The scientists conclude that a better understanding of poverty’s role should lead policymakers to adopt initiatives aimed at closing the achievement gap.

“There is perhaps nothing more important that a society must do than foster and protect the brain development of our children,” Joan Luby, another top neuroscientist, wrote in an accompanying editorial.