The Toxic Toll of Child Poverty

Opponents of a Broader Bolder Approach to Education have often argued that lack of parental income, in itself, cannot represent a major impediment to a child's educational attainment. While there is ample evidence that lack of money can indeed pose multiple barriers -- and logically, it makes sense that not having enough money for books in the home, educational toys, or high-quality child care creates real impediments -- a growing literature points, too, to the very physical toll that poverty takes.

Indeed, in a recent webinar on early childhood education produced by BBA, in conjunction with the Schott Foundation for Public Education, Harvard University's Center on the Developing Child doctoral fellow Todd Grindal presented the brain research findings in this area. Grindal explained how early interactions with adult caregivers -- parents, child care providers, and teachers -- establish the foundation for babies' development. When these interactions are positive, nurturing, and stimulating, and lead to strong relationships, the result is healthy development not just cognitively, but behaviorally, emotionally, and socially.

However, when mothers are depressed -- as poor mothers are much more likely to be -- or when parental stress is high due to poverty and associated inability to provide the basics or read or play quietly with the baby -- the result is disruption of the very brain architecture itself. Toxic stress, the level of stress associated with repeated exposure to abuse, neglect, and violence, has lasting impacts not only on mental and emotional well-being, but on physical health. For example, adults whose early environments were toxically stressful are substantially more likely to develop heart disease.

Of course, most children who grow up in poverty do not experience toxic stress, and many who are not poor do, but the various realities associated with poverty -- lack of employment or very low-paying jobs, unhealthy and unstable housing, food insecurity, and poor health -- make for a strong correlation between the two. Children who grow up poor are thus much more likely to experience severe stress, and also less likely to live in families with resources to cushion the effects.

Scientific American is hardly a source of soft, squishy arguments. So the magazine's assertion in its most recent issue that, "Stress may be silently sabotaging success in school. Its effects are especially potent for children in poverty," in the recent issue should be taken seriously by education policymakers.

It is heartening to see this important evidence make its way into the non-academic mainstream in former New York Times magazine editor Paul Tough's new book, How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character. As Nobel Laureate James Heckman, an original BBA signatory whose work is featured by Tough, points out, non-cognitive factors, such as perseverance and patience, that poverty makes harder to develop, are likely just as big a factor in poor children's lower rates of success as are their weaker reading and math skills. This reinforces the importance of enriching curricula that go far beyond basic math and reading, and of ensuring that teachers have space to develop their students' critical thinking and character, rather than focusing on test-taking skills.

Today, one in five children in the United States lives in poverty -- income of just over $23,000 for a family of four. In many large urban school districts, three in four students or more are poor. It shouldn't take a teachers' strike in Chicago to remind us that cutting school nurses and social workers, substituting test-prep for afterschool enrichment, and making classes so large that teachers cannot have individual time with students, are the worst education policy choices we could make at such a time. If there was ever a moment in education policy that called for a Broader Bolder Approach to Education, hard science and social science have come together in agreement that it is now.