Studies that have followed children from birth through adulthood find a strong relationship between an early childhood in poverty and an increased risk of problems later in life.
Children who grow up in poverty are more likely to engage in violent crime, using illicit drugs, and develop chronic health problems (Novotney, 2010). These are disturbing findings for a nation where, one in five children live in poverty; and even more so for Memphis, where more than half of children are born into poverty, and a third of kids will live in poverty their entire childhood (TUCI, 2010). It is clear that poverty has unfortunate implications for early brain development.
Children in poverty score lower on tasks measuring memory, selective attention, impulse regulation, language skills, and other cognitive development measures than do children from more well-off families. Recent studies identify actual differences in the ways that children’s brains work that correspond to family income. In poor children, the prefrontal cortex does not seem to work as efficiently as it does in middle-income children, requiring low-income children to work harder to accomplish the same tasks. These differences, in turn, mean that it is harder for poor children to solve problems and do well in school, and the differences are particularly noticeable in younger children (Novotney, 2010).
The good news is that young children are particularly receptive to careful interventions. Psychologists have developed evidence-based educational interventions that help to enhance children’s skills (e.g., impulse management, sustained concentration) and help them catch up to the cognitive and academic performance of more affluent peers. The best of these programs include both children and their parents, and show greater returns than programs that target children alone (Novotney, 2010).
The Take-Away: The recession means that a growing share of American children are living in poverty, and a growing body of evidence shows that early childhood poverty undermines optimal brain development. Careful interventions, meanwhile, can help to place children on a stronger developmental pathway. Unfortunately, state budgets – already stretched thin – are unlikely to support expansion of high-quality early childhood interventions without vigorous public demand.