Poverty can change how kids learn

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Children from lower-income families have fewer resources, and this directly impacts a child’s brain development. A new study published by Nature Neuroscience adds to a growing body of evidence that “pulling yourself up by your bootstraps” isn’t as simple as just working hard.[i] Researchers measured the surface area of different parts of the brain, essentially asking, “how many wrinkles are there?” More wrinkled brains have more surface area and indicate more cognitive ability. Researchers found that family income was significantly associated with brain wrinkles in children, especially in areas that are linked to language and executive functions.

Researchers also found that at particularly low income levels, very small increases in income are associated with large, positive difference in a child’s brain structure. Changes in household income among kids whose parents were already well-off are less meaningful. This makes sense, a 10 percent raise if you are scraping by is huge for a family’s ability to eat and live a healthy life. A 10 percent raise for a wealthy family might mean they can afford a nicer car or bigger house, but probably has less impact on things that affect cognitive development. This means that children in particularly disadvantaged households are low hanging fruit – a small amount of financial improvement could result in huge gains in educational attainment.

The effects of poverty on brain development also has important policy implications; policies targeted to low-income families may be the most likely to lead to positive changes in children’s success in school. Despite the potential to vastly improve the possibilities for low-income kids, legislators recently passed tax cuts that benefit nearly everyone in Arkansas except for the poorest families.  During this legislative session, lawmakers also voted out an option to enact a state-level EITC, one of the most effective antipoverty tools ever introduced. Instead, millions of dollars in capital gains tax cuts went to the wealthiest Arkansans. Growing income inequality, which is present nationally as well as here in Arkansas, has deep and long lasting consequences and is truly limiting our state’s children.

We have long known that poverty is damaging to children in almost every capacity, including education and career success down the road. Many of these consequences come down to the ability to afford resources that promote childhood brain development. Household income impacts nutrition, the number of books in the home, a parent’s ability to be home and interact with the kids, access to quality early childhood education and other factors that directly relate to a kid’s ability to learn. This is why the need for legislation like the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) is so critical for improving the health and success of kids.

[i] Noble, Kimberly G et. Al. Family income, parental education and brain structure in children and adolescents. Nature Neuroscience. (2015)