Poverty Affects Brain Growth and Development in Children

How Brains are Built: The Core Story of Brain Development

The American poverty epidemic is many things to many people. A cause to rally around for some, a target of political debate for others, and a fact of society often ignored by many. But, for the 46.5 million Americans living below the poverty line (Current Population Survey, 2013), it is a reality that brings challenges, stress, and hardships most of us will never face. 15 million of these Americans are children, born and raised in an environment that is dictated by their socioeconomic status. (Hanson, et al, 2013) These children often experience increased exposure to family turmoil, violence, separation from their family, instability, and end up receiving less support from their community. (Hanson, et al, 2013). Recent studies have shown that such an environment as a substantial impact on brain development.

The direct causes are not clear, but the differences in children’s brain growth and development are likely due to the fact that low-SES children generally experience lower cognitive stimulation and enrichment, are spoken to less and in less sophisticated ways, and are less likely to be engaged in literary activities. (Hanson, et al, 2013) Consequently, these children are more likely to suffer with learning, behavioral, mental, and physical health problems than children from higher-SES homes. Similar animal studies have also yielded the same results. When researchers manipulate their environments to limit stimuli and increase stress, the animals tend to have smaller brains, fewer neurons, dendrites, synapses, glial cells, and myelination when compared to animals that have not had their environments altered. (Hanson, et al, 2013) Twin studies show gray matter development in particular, is impacted by our environment verses our genes. (Hanson, et al, 2013) When researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison studied children from birth to age 4, results showed that poor children lag behind in the development of the parietal and frontal regions of the brain. The developmental difference in these areas likely explains many of the behavioral, learning, and attention problems observed in higher rates among lower-SES children. (Wood, 2013)



This figure shows total gray matter volume for group by age.

Age in months is shown on the horizontal axis, spanning from 5 to 37 months. Total gray matter volume is shown on the vertical axis. The blue line shows children from Low SES households; children from Mid SES households are shown in red. The green line shows children from High SES households. (Hanson, et al, 2013) doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0080954.g002


This figure shows frontal lobe gray matter volumes for group by age.

Age in months is shown on the horizontal axis, spanning from 5 to 37 months. Total gray matter volume is shown on the vertical axis. The blue line shows children from Low SES households; children from Mid SES households are shown in red. The green line shows children from High SES households. (Hanson, et al, 2013) doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0080954.g003


This figure shows parietal lobe gray matter volumes for group by age.

Age in months is shown on the horizontal axis, spanning from 5 to 37 months. Total gray matter volume is shown on the vertical axis. The blue line shows children from Low SES households; children from Mid SES households are shown in red. The green line shows children from High SES households. (Hanson, et al, 2013) doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0080954.g004


A lack of nurturing may be a specific detrimental difference experienced by children in poverty. A study from the Washington University School of Medicine observed children between the ages of 6-12 as they interacted with their parent. Parents living in poverty were observed to be more stressed and less capable of nurturing impatient children. MRIs revealed that these same children had less gray and white matter in their brains, and smaller amygdala’s and hippocampus’s, affecting their emotions, memory, and learning abilities. (Whiteman, 2013)

Are these simply people displaying bad parenting skills? Shouldn’t we blame them instead of the child’s environment? In response to the August 2013 findings in Science, which stated that poverty hurts people’s ability to make decisions and has the affect of losing 13 IQ points (Thompson, 2013), The Atlantic published some comments written by people experiencing poverty first hand. A few of the revealing statement by one reader included, “I will never not be poor. I have proven that I am a Poor Person, that is all I am or ever will be. I will never have large pleasures to hold on to. We don’t plan long-term because we’ll just get our hearts broken. It’s best not to hope. You just take what you can get as you spot it.” (Thompson, 2013) It is clear that the mindset and outlook of a person in poverty is very different than those living in higher socioeconomic classes. The sense of the “inescapability of poverty is so severe that one abandons long-term planning entirely.” (Thompson, 2013) This may help us understand how and why a parent in poverty interacts with, and relates to, a child differently than those without these issues.

The good news is that these developmental lags need not be permanent. With proper stimulation, these children can catch up and close the gap. Finding ways to provide an enriched, safe environment, teaching caregivers to be more nurturing, and giving children time to play and explore are of vital importance. (Wood, 2013) It is up to society to determine what can be done to close the gap, and give these children the same ability to take advantage of opportunities as their wealthier peers. It is not enough to simply leave these children to fail or succeed on their own. The cost to society, in terms of financial, intellectual, emotional, and health issues, is too great to simply be ignored. Personally, I hope to work towards my teaching certification after graduating from Cedar Crest with my BA in Psychology. By tailoring my education to serve those in urban, low-income schools, I can try to be a small part of the bigger need to improve the future of these kids.


Reference List:

Current Population Survey 2013 Annual Social and Economic Supplement. (2013). United States Census Bureau. Retrieved from: https://www.census.gov/hhes/www/poverty/about/overview/

Hanson, Jamie. Hair, Nicole. Shen, Dinggang. Shi, Feng. Gilmore, John. Wolfe, Barbara. Pollak, Seth. (2013, December 11) Family Poverty Affects the Rate of Human Infant Brain Growth. PLoS One 8(12). Retrieved from: http://www.plosone.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0080954

Thompson, Derek. (2013, November) Your Brain on Poverty: Why Poor People Seem to Make Bad Decisions. The Atlantic. Retrieved from: http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2013/11/your-brain-on-poverty-why-poor-people-seem-to-make-bad-decisions/281780/

Wood, Janice. (2013) Poverty Hinders Kids’ Early Brain Development. Psych Central. Retrieved from: http://psychcentral.com/news/2013/12/15/poverty-negatively-impacts-childrens-early-brain-development/63305.html

Whiteman, Honor. (2013, October 29). Childhood Poverty Affects Brain Development. Medical News Today. Retrieved from: http://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/268066.php




  1. I will agree that the idea of inescapability of poverty may cause some children to abandon the idea of long term planning. I do not believe that socioeconomics hold the monopoly on how nurturing a parent may be. Certainly wealth or poverty can both prove to be stressful. Poverty does create stressors for children and their development but the same can be said for wealth. For instance those born with wealth may or may not learn how to be independent, work hard. They may suffer from having everything handed to them. Having legacy admissions at universities may prove too stressful for some not being able to live up to family expectations. Learning abilities maybe affected due to lack of responsibility being enforced. I would also agree that development may lag in poverty stricken families but economics, politics and taxes have a lot to do with school curriculum. One should not have to be wealthy to get an education. A willingness to learn and do the work should be sufficient. I didn’t know we were poor when I was a kid until someone told me. You are correct environment plays a huge role as well as stimuli. We need to feel safe.

    • I absolutely agree that nurturing parents and non-nurturing parents can be found in any economic class, any culture, any race, any ethnicity, any faith, etc. For me, the biggest takeaway here are the things that I think a lot of middle class families take for granted. Because the basic needs are mostly met (safety, food, shelter), middle class families can spend more time focusing on their child’s development and intellectual progression. They may not have to work as many hours because there are two parents or other family members supporting the child care and financial needs.

      The subject of school equality is an entirely different topic that I could go on about, but in this context, I think its more about school readiness. Are kids on the same level when they enter school, or are some at a greater advantage when they start, compared to other kids who may be further behind and end up spending more time playing catch up. This is where the advantages of children who have progressed in their early years to a level that prepares them for school work and social interaction, compared to children who are not ready and are faced with learning and situations that they are not prepared to handle. The compounding effects of falling behind could result in even greater developmental lags, rather than addressing the discrepancies before it becomes a problem.

  2. The Huffington Post reported on a study completed by Sesame Workshop today. It shoes that children with risk factors, such as living in poverty, parents education level, etc, can result in children being a full year behind and suffering in their memory abilities when they start Kindergarten. These children would need to work twice as hard during the year in order to catch up to their peers.

    A good, quick read: http://m.huffpost.com/us/entry/5589450?ncid=fcbklnkushpmg00000037&ir=Parents

  3. I totally agree that poverty affects development. I work with low income families on a daily basis. It’s one of those things that unless you’ve walked in their shoes it is hard to understand. The agency I work in holds trainings for our staff regularly on poverty and its affects. All the things we take for granted can really be seen once you start working with a family that is living in poverty. They are extremely transient, moving from rental to rental, they often work several part time jobs for minimum wage, they have no health insurance or are underinsured and they do not have the means to find information on services available.

    As the child’s brain is still developing, they are exposed to all sorts of stresses that are not common to other children. These stressors go on the cause damage later through depression or anxiety. Many children living in poverty come from generations of poverty stricken families. The affects do not just happen overnight, it could be years in the making.

    You can see how a parent can become preoccupied because of the number of things she has to do. A lot of poverty children are raised in single households by mothers. The mother has so many things on her plate, the nurturing of a child may be the last thing that gets taken care of unfortunately.

    You touched on such an interesting topic. I did a presentation for another psychology class on the affects of poverty and then later shared it was my staff at work. There are so many break out areas such as you mentioned that take this in so many different directions. These children’s brains need to be nurtured as they grow.

    Very interesting and a good discussion topic with the potential for a lot of varying views, I know before I worked with low income families I had a completely different attitude than I now have about the affects and poverty cycle.

  4. Wow Kelly..you hit the nail on the head with this blog. I never understood how children who come from low income families and how this relates to low level learners. I never understood this connection till I took educational classes at LCCC and learned how the two relate together.
    When uneducated parents making minimum wage salaries, and working long days to feed their children, definitely relates to low lever learners, because the parents are not around to educate their children due to their own low level education.
    The parents may not have the extra money around for proper day care, and then the fact that parents cannot afford good quality food so children have poor nutrition, which leads to health problems and poor dietary nutrition for brains to grow.
    You can only teach what you know.You can only parent how you have been taught to parent.This is such a spiral down affect from generation to generation.

    • I absolutely agree. I don’t think its a matter of one economic class caring as much as another, but more about the resources they have available to them, their knowledge level, and the time they can focus on their child. Not to mention added stress on the parent most certainly affects the child, if the parents realize it or not. Daycare is a very good point. Middle class parents are likely to research the best daycare and preschools available and afford to pay the monthly tuitions. For parents who are struggling just to pay the bills, its not possible to seek out the best intellectual environment for their child. They may only be able to afford the one that is the least expensive and allows them to work various shifts.

  5. I am on the fence about this only because of personal experience with living in a very low income home, ate what we could afford and did not attend the most greatest school, etc. and my brother and I turned out fine. I believe your childhood is what you may have to live because of whatever circumstances your parents are in but even as a child you still can make your own decision to want to learn. I think it’s really sad that there are so many uneducated parents out there and the children of this world have to suffer. Being in family practice for 6 1/2 years I seen this almost everyday and I personally believe if you need a marriage license then there should be a law that people need to take education classes before allowing to have children, at lease we will have fewer unwanted children in the world and more educated parents to take care of their children.

    • Hi Kelly, when I was looking at my post I realized that some of my post was missing. I am sorry about that, have been scattered lately. I think you did a great job on your blog. This is more of my own personal feelings and probably because I lived in a very low income family with not a lot of family support to help with our education, preparing healthy meals, etc. I agree that when a child lives in a low income home and not enough attention or support children have a greater risks of depression, learning disabilities and honestly lack of education in every aspect of their life. I personally feel that some of my learning disabilities come from the lack of nourishment that a child needs to stimulate the brain to become more effective and be able to learn and grasp different concepts that are simple tasks. However, I do feel that a child at a certain age who is able to know right from wrong as the ability to determine if they want to have a good education and the will power to learn. This is something I always struggled with but I had that want to learn, don’t know if it’s because of the lifestyle that I was in or if I thought learning was my way of showing the world that I can do anything no matter what struggles come my way and not blaming my parents or home life for my lack of abilities that are my every day struggles. Our children in today’s world are going to be our next generation and we are lucky to have someone like you who has the heart to want to study and learn more about helping children to over come the fear of not succeeding in life and learn how to except those challenges as part of a positive lesson of life. Your blog was well researched. Sorry again that some of my post was missing and did not catch it right away. 🙂

  6. This is similar to my 1st blog The Failure To Connect, in which toxic stress can disrupt or destroy neurons needed for learning, and how it leads to an interruption in cognitive development once synapses are damaged or permanently pruned. According to your blog there is a possibility of connecting neurons later in life depending on the how much damage was done during the early years. This is good news for children if they can receive the therapy before it’s too late. Great read and great video.

  7. I don’t know if I agree or disagree with these findings while the fact of the nation’s poor is true. The opportunities for education exist for everyone, getting the incentive or initiative to step out of your upbringing or living conditions is not always easy or even considered. The same can be said of wealthy parents, their children have all the monetary options available but do not make anything with themselves.
    I took social work classes before deciding on psychology and reading a book called Amazing Grace really opened my eyes to the treatment of America’s poor and how hard some mother’s fight for their children just to survive. Now I can not comment on inner city school systems. I have always lived in smaller cities or the suburbs where schools have been decent.
    I still believe that loving and nurturing parents are in all walks of life. So some of these children are going to make it out and make a difference in society.
    Great research into this subject and well thought out blog. Thanks for the in-depth information.

  8. This was a wonderful post Kelly. I am amazed at how great the volume difference of grey matter is in children of different economic statuses. I have read other studies focusing on these differences and education, yet seeing the physiological explanation really drives home the importance of stimulating and educating our kids from birth. Our country has a large portion of kids living in low socioeconomic classes and that portion is growing. We are doing these kids an injustice if we continue to ignore these facts. It is difficult however to convince adults raising kids in this class the importance of education when they are trying so hard to just stay above water, figuratively speaking. The charts that you included were well thought out. Thanks for such a thought provoking topic:)

  9. I really like how you chose a topic that tied into you future goals to work in urban, low-income areas with children! i thought that was very cool. Also, I am not sure if you had read my blog this week, but I felt there was a connection with the story I shared about my little sister and what you shared here about the effects on the developing brain of a child. After watching the video you posted here and reading the research, I feel quite confident that my adopted sister is in a much more positive and healthy environment to allow her brain to develop in a medium to high SES lifestyle with little to no bad stress. The graphs you posted really put the point you were trying to get across here into an awesome visual perspective. And because finances are something a child has absolutely no control over, it is very upsetting to see the drop in brain development correlating to financial status. It was a very great post to read, and after the information I found for my blog post, it is nice to see the extremely positive impact the adoption of my little sister will have on her life and her brain!
    Thank You,

  10. Hi Kelly
    Interesting and very educational. In your blog you touch many excellent points on the development of a child’s brain and the connection it has with his/her development in their life as they grow. The video was a very good explanation of this development. I work in a school district and I see how positive relationship, serve and return, good and bad stress and nutrition can affect a child from pre-school to high school. I agree that it is very important to help when ever we can in areas where children need it the most, education, nutrition and positive relationship. Enjoyed your blog very much!

  11. Kelly great blog entry, I don’t think we as member of our societies give this topic enough attentions.Poverty is not just inner city but also in rural areas. I read some were recently that children in low income families eat less in the summer because they are not guaranteed lunch like they are in school. I find this very heartbreaking. It’s sad because people who are poverty stricken seem to be a part of an ongoing cycle. If the educations,health care, and nutrition isn’t in place it’s hard for people to make educated decisions for themselves and their families.I feel like people who say “I’ll always going to be poor” say that because being poor is all they know, how can one strive for more if all they know nothing but poverty. There are children in the inner city schools of Philadelphia that don’t even have books or a desk to sit at school.And then people wonder why the adolescences take to the street. I feel like people need to be paying more attention to this topic especially when it comes to education and try to be more involved. Like the video said a child cannot strive without a solid foundation. With education cuts going like they are and the cost of good nourishing food increasing, what are we doing but setting these children and families up for nothing but failure.

    • I remember volunteering at the food bank one year and learning about the difficulties for children in need during the summers. Not only are they losing the school lunch program, but many are also receiving free breakfasts. There are much fewer programs for hungry kids in the summer, and many of them are falling through the cracks. It also reminds me of the need that many if these kids have for school supplies. Basic notebooks, pencils, calculators, and books on summer reading lists are out of reach for kids preparing to return to school. Hopefully everyone will take something away from this and find one of these programs in their area to support!

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