Poverty and Children

Stephen DeAngelis

April 14, 2009

In a recent blog entitled The Cost of Crisis, I discussed the devastating toll that the current financial crisis is having on children living in poverty. The World Bank indicates that as many as 400,000 more children could die each year the recession lingers. Even in relatively flush times, however, children living in poverty pay a price — and not just in the developing world. According to new research, children living in poverty in the United States “suffer many ill effects: They often have health problems and tend to struggle in school, which can create a cycle of poverty across generations” [“Research Links Poor Kids’ Stress, Brain Impairment,” by Rob Stein, Washington Post, 6 April 2009].

“Research is providing what could be crucial clues to explain how childhood poverty translates into dimmer chances of success: Chronic stress from growing up poor appears to have a direct impact on the brain, leaving children with impairment in at least one key area — working memory. … Previous research into the possible causes of the achievement gap between poor and well-off children has focused on genetic factors that influence intelligence, on environmental exposure to toxins such as lead, and on the idea that disadvantaged children tend to grow up with less intellectual stimulation.”

It’s not clear whether the conclusions of this research are globally applicable; but I suspect that for children living in poverty in urban areas around the world they probably are. For people living traditional lifestyles in rural or primitive areas, the research probably has less application. For example, a recent Travel Channel television show entitled “Mark and Olly Living with the Machigenga” provides a glimpse into the lifestyle of remote Peruvian tribe (the Machigenga). By western standards the Machigenga are poor, but the show’s stars, Mark Anstice and Olly Steeds, point out that the Machigenga are intelligent, well-adjusted, and rich in other ways. Steeds, a journalist, wrote this in his blog about the experience:

“One thing that’s struck me throughout is how kids are brought up here. … Why would you want to? They are miles from medical help and miles from schooling. … On the surface of things, it looks like a picture-perfect jungle paradise for kids to play and explore. They have little and want for little. … But through having a childish ‘love affair with the world,’ kids engage in ceaseless exploration of their surroundings, and here the natural world is a harsh and unforgiving place, full of lethal plants they could eat, rivers that could swallow them and animals that could kill them. … I suppose the main dilemma of life, is the same everywhere, except perhaps here it is not cluttered by the social, political and consumer bric-a-brac of our societies – how do you balance the selfish desires of being an individual, being able to survive independently and be fully self-reliant whilst responding to the necessary compromises required for a family and community life? There can’t be many places on Earth where it is so fundamental to survival to get this right. Perhaps because of that, there is nothing more sacred here in these isolated woods, than family. But how do you raise a kid to embody these characteristics? I’m no anthropologist, so I can only talk about what I’ve seen — as soon as a baby can crawl, he/she is let out to explore the world, applying a little subtle pressure to convey the message: ‘Let’s see what self-reliance you are capable of today!’ … Life here is all about family. … There is a freedom here to explore, to learn, to develop beyond anything we know in our world. Yes, these kids know no other life, and they grow and reflect their environment, but I suppose there’s one test that stands above all others — you can see it in the shining eyes of every kid here – they are content, wise and, above all, happy — happier than any other kids I’ve seen anywhere else in the world.”

Perhaps it is not so much the stress of living in poverty as the lack of “intellectual stimulation” that has the greatest impact on children. The Machigenga are surrounded by stimulation and clear motivation to learn — survival. The research discussed in Stein’s article accepted that living in poverty means having “fewer trips to museums, having fewer toys, having parents who don’t have as much time or energy to engage with them intellectually.” However, the specific purpose of the research was to examine the role that stress plays in child development.

“‘We know low-socioeconomic-status families are under a lot of stress — all kinds of stress. When you are poor, when it rains it pours. You may have housing problems. You may have more conflict in the family. There’s a lot more pressure in paying the bills. You’ll probably end up moving more often. There’s a lot more demands on low-income families. We know that produces stress in families, including on the children,’ [Gary W. Evans, a professor of human ecology at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., who led the research,] said.”

The greatest impact that researchers found had to do with the “working memory” of children who grew up in poverty. The working memory of poor children was about 20% lower than the working memory of children who had never known poverty. Working memory is the short-term memory that people need in order to successfully complete routine activities. It establishes the foundation that allows short-term learning to become part of long-term memory. Evans reports that poor working memory means that children have a more difficult time remembering phone numbers or developing a good vocabulary. Researchers feel fairly certain that depressed working memory is the result of stress rather than lack of intellectual stimulation because it is supported by other research.

“[Bruce S. McEwen, who heads the laboratory of neuroendocrinology at Rockefeller University in New York], said the findings are consistent with earlier research in animals and brain imaging studies in people indicating that the body’s response to stress, such as chronically elevated levels of cortisol, can adversely affect the brain, including the regions involved in working memory. … Other researchers cautioned that more work is needed to explore and confirm the findings, and that chronic stress is probably one of the many factors affecting a child’s development. But they said the results provided insight into the connection between poverty and achievement.”

Commenting on the study discussed by Stein, The Economist concluded: [“I am just a poor boy though my story’s seldom told,” 4 April 2009 print issue]

“The main reason poor people are stressed is that they are at the bottom of the social heap as well as the financial one. Sir Michael Marmot, of University College London, and his intellectual successors have shown repeatedly that people at the bottom of social hierarchies experience much more stress in their daily lives than those at the top—and suffer the consequences in their health. Even quite young children are socially sensitive beings and aware of such things. So, it may not be necessary to look any further than their place in the pecking order to explain what Dr Evans and Dr Schamberg have discovered in their research into the children of the poor. The Bible says, ‘the poor you will always have with you.’ Dr Evans and Dr Schamberg may have provided an important part of the explanation why.”

The bottom line is clear: poverty has a negative effect on the development of children. Poverty doesn’t just begat more poverty it also fosters the birth of more children. Analysts have noted for years that birthrates decline as income increases. New York Times‘ columnist Nicholas Kristof recently wrote about the connection between poverty and pregnancy [“Pregnant (Again) and Poor,” 4 April 2009]. He laments that poor women and their children will never be able to break the shackles of poverty unless the developed world helps them with more family planning. He also notes that there is a link between education and birthrates.

“[There are] 200 million women worldwide who, according to United Nations estimates, have what demographers call an ‘unmet need’ for safe and effective contraception. That is, they don’t want to get pregnant but don’t use a modern form of family planning. This ‘unmet need’ results in 70 million to 80 million unwanted pregnancies annually, the United Nations says, along with 19 million abortions and 150,000 maternal deaths. The push for contraception was at the center of development efforts in the 1960s and 1970s, but then waned. In part, it was tarnished by its own zealotry, including coercion in China and India. Another reason was abortion politics, which led to a cutoff in American financing for the United Nations Population Fund — even though the upshot was more unwanted pregnancies and more abortions. In addition, family planning turned out to be harder than many enthusiasts had expected, for it requires far more than condoms or the pill. Haiti has family-planning clinics, spending on contraception is fairly high, and women say they want fewer children — yet only one-quarter of Haitian women use contraceptives.”

Family planning remains a controversial subject (and abortion politics are even more controversial). People on both sides of the argument generally agree that all children brought into the world should be wanted and, more importantly, deserve to be loved. Family planning can help meet that ideal. Kristof agrees with scholars who believe “the best way to elevate women, by far, is to educate girls and to give them opportunities to earn income through micro-loans, factory jobs or vocational training. It is sometimes said that the best contraceptive isn’t the pill or the IUD, but education for girls.” As Kristof noted, ill-conceived forced family planning in places like China have demonized family planning efforts. Such efforts have also caused other evil consequences. In China, for example, boys are being abducted by the thousands and sold to families yearning for a male heir [“Chinese Hunger for Sons Fuels Boys’ Abductions,” by Andrew Jacobs, New York Times, 4 April 2009]. The best solution to these challenges is helping people pull themselves out of poverty. Financially-secure parents can afford to send their children (both boys and girls) to school. Their children don’t suffer from malnutrition. And they generally have smaller families and can take care of them. People of good will should be able to agree that helping families become self-sufficient is a goal worth pursuing. The best place to begin is by ensuring that all children get a good education — but especially girls.