Poverty Undermines the Genetic Potential of Our Youngest Citizens

New studies show that poverty interacts with genes to undermine early brain development.These findings are especially important for Memphians, where far too many of our youngest citizens are at risk of growing up in poverty. This trend can can have both lasting and damaging effects on early brain development, especially from 0-3. Researchers at the University of Texas at Austin looked at 750 sets of twins at 10 months and again at 2 years. The children were asked to perform such tasks as pulling a string to ring a bell, placing three cubes in a cup, and matching pictures. At 10 months, each twin, regardless of the socioeconomic status of their families, performed equally well. By age 2, children from richer families scored significantly higher than those from poorer families, the investigators found (Preidt 2011). Because identical twins have the same genetic material, these experiments are able to compare the importance of genes and the environments in which children are raised on their cognitive development. Findings from these studies indicate that "nature" and "nurture" work together to affect a child's brain development and that the right environment can help children begin to reach their genetic potential early.

Kindergarten readiness, school achievement, and long-term well-being depend upon optimal brain development in their earliest years. Economic hardship creates conditions that undermine children’s brain development and jeopardize their chances for success and happiness (CUCP 2009).

These finding matter locally, where economic conditions continue to worsen for young children and families. The number of children in poor and low-income families is highest in southern states. Shelby County’s child poverty rate, which is the percentage of children living in households with incomes below the poverty line, has grown to 30 percent, and children in dire poverty, those with family incomes below 50% of the poverty line, are close to 17 percent (CUCP 2009).

The Take-Away: It’s not just genes and it’s not just environment. Poverty threatens the genetic potential of young children. This is a key issue for our community to address when more than half of all children in Memphis start life in families made vulnerable by poverty.