Jessica Sweeney took a ballet class once when she was a child.
When it came time for the class recital, she panicked when she was told she had to come up with $20 for a costume. Somehow her family came up with the money, but that was the last extracurricular class she took.
“When I observe children, including my own, from lower-income households, it's as if I can see into them, witness their talents sitting dormant, churning, just waiting for a chance,” says Sweeney.
Fewer opportunities for stimulation and growth are just one of the many unseen effects of growing up in poverty, and mounting evidence shows that the strain of constant poverty can impair judgment and even change the brain itself. A recent Harvard study showed that experiencing poverty can create the equivalent effect of pulling an all-nighter every night.
“There is a heavy emotional and psychological component to poverty,” says Fran Walfish, a psychotherapist who worked with low-income families in Los Angeles for 15 years. “Even if you're born gifted, poverty interferes with the functionality of a high IQ, and that can affect the course of your life.”
Your brain on poverty
Bernadette McDaid directs a popular Science Channel show called “Through the Wormhole” hosted by Morgan Freeman, which explores tricky scientific questions. This season's premiere episode, “Is Poverty Genetic?“, was personal for Freeman and McDaid, she says, because they both grew up in humble circumstances.
“When I was young, 6 or 7, I remember an adult said to me, 'That's your lot and that's what you've got to deal with.' I thought to myself, 'That doesn't have to be my lot,'” says McDaid, who grew up in a poor town in Ireland.
McDaid and Freeman both improved their circumstances — in the “Wormhole” episode Freeman notes that he didn't know anyone rich when he was growing up, but he's “in the movies now, and money isn't a problem” — and may have become exceptions to the conclusions drawn by the researchers, but many others still experience long-lasting effects from the stress of poverty.
Research shows that the brains of poor people start out the same as everyone else's, but then they can develop more slowly over early childhood because of the strain of poverty. This can be seen in the Science Channel episode, which features Martha Farah, a cognitive neuroscientist from the University of Pennsylvania, who has scanned the brain activity of hundreds of kids, both rich and poor.
Her team found that extreme poverty slowed development of the hippocampus, which helps with memory, learning and stress regulation, and the prefrontal cortex, which coordinates memory and motor control.
“Wealthy kids tend to get more stimulation,” says Farah. “They get read to more, talked to more, get to visit interesting places — we know that promotes cognitive brain development.”
Walfish points out that poverty takes an emotional toll as well as an intellectual one. About 31 percent of Americans in poverty say they have been diagnosed with depression, twice the ratio of those not in poverty, according to a Gallup poll.
“If you're depressed, and you are having a hard time functioning, that's going to impact whether a person is able to do their best,” Walfish says. “We all have to find a way to spring back from rejection,” she says, and impoverished people have more obstacles than most. “Life requires resilience.”
Nature vs. nurture
Stimulation and attention promote the intellectual and emotional health of young brains, and research supports early-childhood education programs like Head Start or the plan for free universal preschool in New York City by Mayor Bill de Blasio.
Eric Turkheimer, a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia, has done research that highlights the importance of environment. He conducted a study on twins to differentiate between the effects of nature and nurture, finding that for kids in the middle class and up, their genes played a large role in how they performed on IQ tests. For kids raised in poverty, their genes played almost no role at all, and their home environment was by far the most important factor.
Essentially, children with high IQs who were living in severe poverty were not able to express those traits. “If someone has the capacity to be a financial wizard but is raised in a harsh environment, that exceptional DNA may not shine through,” says Turkheimer.
He uses the comparison of a handful of seeds — some that are genetically predisposed to be tall and some short. If you plant those seeds in sand instead of good soil, they all come out stunted and short — even the “tall” ones.
Poverty seems to be “suppressing” the IQs of the poor, says Turkheimer, and certain environmental factors need to be in place for genetic potential to shine, though it's hard to say which ones — prenatal care, nutrition, better schools. All those things add up, he says, and poverty is an “accumulation of negative effects.”
We should be putting our efforts toward improving the environment for those kids at the very bottom of the financial spectrum, he says. “I'm a big believer in promoting intelligence … and if my research has one specific implication, it's that if you have a dollar to spend, use it to make a crummy environment pretty good, rather than to make a good one excellent.”
Reversing the effects
The stakes have gone up for improving the living conditions and educational opportunities for low-income children, since more Americans have fallen below the poverty line since the recession. One in 5 children in the U.S. now lives in poverty, a total of 16 million children, up from 13 million in 2009, according to the Department of Agriculture.
However, evidence shows that negative effects on the brain can be reversed. A Boston Children's Hospital study analyzed brain scans from Romanian orphans who were removed from institutional care and moved to quality foster homes. The improved conditions led to a rebound in cognitive function.
In MRIs, children who had been in orphanages had lower levels of white matter, which makes up the “information superhighway” that connects the brain. But after they were placed in foster care, those children were able to “catch up,” and their white matter was the same as children who had never been placed in orphanages at all.
The research indicates that change can happen, but sooner is better, and younger brains are more resilient.
“Our cognitive studies suggest that there may be a sensitive period spanning the first two years of life within which the onset of foster care exerts a maximal effect on cognitive development,” wrote Charles Nelson, one of the lead researchers, in the report. “The younger a child is when placed in foster care, the better the outcome.”