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3 Studies: Poverty Is Toxic to Childhood Learning

No one doubts that poverty harms children’s ability to learn in myriad ways, from causing a child to go to school hungry and tired, to making unavailable the resources a child needs to do homework, to living in dangerous neighborhoods or households where domestic violence and drug and alcohol abuse distract from schoolwork and may even prevent a child from going to school regularly.

But recent research indicates that poverty—and the stress it engenders in children’s lives—has even more serious impacts on children’s learning than previously thought because it can affect brain development. Some of the effects of stress on young brains directly affect cognitive skills, but many of the effects are to the so-called “soft skills” that are required if a child is to succeed in school. Those skills include focusing on a task, paying attention to the teacher, remembering what happened a few minutes ago, regulating emotions, not becoming distracted, controlling impulses, planning ahead, understanding consequences—the non-cognitive skills that are essential to learning.

Here is some of the research:

The Effects of Poverty on Childhood Brain Development

A study by Dr. Joan Luby et al. published in the journal JAMA Pediatrics in December, “The Effects of Poverty on Childhood Brain Development,” found that “exposure to poverty in early childhood materially impacts brain development at school age…. Poverty was associated with smaller white and cortical gray matter and hippocampal and amygdala volumes.” The authors point out that these findings put childhood poverty squarely in the realm of public health issues.

Poverty as a Childhood Disease

In May of last year, the New York Times published an article by pediatrician Dr. Perri Klass, “Poverty as a Childhood Disease.” She writes, “Recently, there has been a lot of focus on the idea of toxic stress, in which a young child’s body and brain may be damaged by too much exposure to so-called stress hormones, like cortisol and norepinephrine. When this level of stress is experienced at an early age, and without sufficient protection, it may actually reset the neurological and hormonal systems, permanently affecting children’s brains and even, we are learning, their genes.”

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The Chronic Stress of Poverty: Toxic to Children

An article published January 12 as part of The Shriver Report, “The Chronic Stress of Poverty: Toxic to Children.” by Dr. Nadine Burke Harris, cited a CDC study of “adverse childhood experiences” (ACEs), including abuse, neglect, exposure to domestic violence, and household dysfunction such as parental substance use, mental illness, incarceration, or divorce. The study found that repeated stress and the resulting release of stress hormones damages youngsters' immune systems and their developing brains, particularly the pre-frontal cortex, which controls things like reasoning, impulse control, memory and planning.

Harris describes one mechanism that leads to damage: “The principal actor in the link between ACEs and disease is the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal, or HPA, axis governing the body’s ‘fight-or-flight’ response…. The HPA axis releases a surge of stress hormones, including adrenaline and cortisol, which creates a cascade of chemical reactions in the brain and body. When activated occasionally…this system bypasses our thinking brain, the prefrontal cortex, and activates the primitive reactions that can get us out of the way of a mortal threat. The problem comes when the system is overtaxed by repeated, intense, or chronic stress. That cascade of chemicals and reactions goes from saving one’s life to damaging one’s health. As it turns out, children are particularly vulnerable to the harmful effects of chronic stress and trauma and the resulting bath of stress hormones, because their young brains, nervous systems, and organs are just developing.”


The Children’s Defense Fund reports that nearly 1 in 5 children in America is poor. For American Indian/Alaska Native children, the number is 1 in 3. The organization reports, “American Indian/Alaska Native students fall behind early on and do not catch up. More than 75 percent of fourth and eighth grade American Indian/Alaska Native students could not read or compute at grade level in 2013, compared to less than 57 percent White students and less than 51 percent Asian students.”

Red Cloud Indian School

U.S. Senate candidate Rick Weiland visited with students at Red Cloud Indian School on the Pine Ridge Reservation to discuss public service, the needs of tribal communities and to hear the concerns of students.

Child poverty is a national security issue—losing so much of the next generation to poor educational outcomes puts huge pressure on our country’s resources. It is an economic security issue if so many of our people are too poorly educated to get and hold good jobs, contribute to economic growth and pay taxes. And it is clearly a human rights issue. Britain is one country that has proved that these child poverty numbers are not written in stone. Through a multi-faceted approach and an adequately-funded national commitment to solve the problem, Britain has cut child poverty in half—from 26.1 percent in 1999 to 10.6 percent in 2010.