A major study has just shown that kids who grow up in low-income families develop smaller brains than those raised in more affluent circumstances. The research, led by neuroscientists at Children's Hospital Los Angeles and Columbia University Medical Center, is not the first to point out this phenomenon. A 2013 study at the Washington University School of Medicine also found smaller brain volumes in people who had experienced poverty as young children, as well as difficulties with stress, memory and processing emotion.
Information like this can lead in two directions: to despair or to action. We could conclude that poor kids are biologically doomed to a lifetime of low achievement. Or we could act immediately to improve the early experiences of these children while redoubling our efforts to end poverty. Despair is a non-starter. Putting aside humanitarian concerns, the United States cannot afford to limit the prospects of the 20 percent of its children who grow up in poverty.
As Harvard University's Charles Nelson wrote in an editorial in the Journal of the American Medical Association:
If we wish to protect our children's brains, we must work hard to protect their young minds. Exposure to early life adversity should be considered no less toxic than exposure to lead, alcohol, or cocaine, and, as such, it merits similar attention from public health authorities.
What if 20 percent of our children were exposed to cocaine in early childhood? We would treat it as a national emergency. Poverty is a national emergency. Strangely, we are often resigned to a significant portion of our country living in poverty, even though we know what works to lift families to self-sufficiency.
We love stories of people who grew up poor and turn out to be amazing achievers. Sometimes we take those stories as proof that poverty does not have a long-term limiting effect. But we celebrate these rags-to-riches stories precisely because they defy the odds. Instead we should be changing the odds to produce more happy endings.
Researchers in the brain development studies have been quick to point out that improving a child's environment can insulate a child from the damaging effects of poverty. That is hard to do – even significantly more difficult when financial pressures bring extreme stress into a household. A Yale University study I co-authored found that the inability to buy an adequate supply of diapers was associated with stress and depression in low-income mothers. We know that maternal stress and depression trigger a host of bad outcomes for children.
Providing better supports to struggling families can make the job of parenting less overwhelming and create more opportunities for parents to provide the nurturing that we know helps kids, immediately and for the rest of their lives. In all my years of working with families in poverty, I have consistently seen that parents want to do what's best for their children. Often all they lack are resources. We now have proof that providing those resources will help all children in the long run.
Providing those resources is the kind and just thing to do. It is also a matter of urgency. We cannot place one in five American children at risk of permanent limitations – not if we want to remain an economic power. Children are always the smartest investment. A growing body of research is proving that delaying that investment will have tragic outcomes for all of us.