Poverty and the Developing Brain

Poverty and the Developing Brain “The brain is not destiny. And if a child’s brain can be changed, then anything is possible. ” —Kimberly Noble


September | No. 1-2019

Research has documented a strong association between children growing up in poverty and being more likely to struggle in school than their more advantaged peers, resulting in an income achievement gap.

Ongoing research, however, is moving beyond correlation to test a causal relationship between growing up in poverty and development in key parts of the brain that govern learning and behavior.

Findings suggest that aspects of poverty that affect brain development go beyond limited financial resources to include neighborhood violence, low-quality schools, environmental toxins, and unstable family life.

Researchers see suggestive evidence that the effects of poverty can be reversed by identifying and offsetting negative environmental influences.


Flowchart: Neuroscientists created this model to hypothesize a way that leads socioeconomic status (SES) to influence brain development and cognitive functioning, and downstream, academic achievement.
Brain scientists created this flow chart to show how disadvantage can create challenges that influence brain development in ways that affect school performance and outcomes.
: N. H. Brito and K. G. Noble, “Socioeconomic Status and Structural Brain Development,” Frontiers in Neuroscience 8 (2014).
Note: SES = socioeconomic status.
IRP Related Research


Although there is no one ‘brain signature of poverty,’ given the complexity of poverty and its effects, the combined findings from the social and biological sciences provide an opportunity for researchers and policymakers to design particularly innovative interventions.
—Seth Pollak


Lisa A. Gennetian
Lisa A. Gennetian

Enhanced income can enable parents to invest in themselves and their children; reduce economic stressors and support more responsive parenting; and can reduce the mental drain of poverty.Lisa Gennetian, Baby's First Years study researcher

Mother holding baby. Photo by Jeff Miller, University of Wisconsin-Madison, 2010.I understand that there’s a concern about giving unrestricted cash as a policy intervention,” “What this study is asking is whether or not, as a matter of public policy, is it a straightforward way to achieve the important goal of early childhood development.Matt Klein, executive director of the New York City Mayor’s Office for Economic Opportunity
  • Money for Moms, The Indicator from Planet Money, National Public Radio

Emerging evidence is suggesting that the developing brain is most malleable to experience early in childhood, so it’s the time period when you would expect to find the biggest bang for your buck, as it were.Kimberly Noble, Baby’s First Years researcher
Other Research


How Does Income Affect Childhood Brain Development? Kimberly Noble, TED Talk, January 2019.


Does Growing Up Poor Harm Brain Development? The Economist, Mother’s Money, May 3, 2018


Rasmus M. Birn, Barbara J. Roeber, and Seth D. Pollak, Early Childhood Stress Exposure, Reward Pathways, and Adult Decision Making, Proceedings of the National Academies of Sciences 114, No. 51 (2017): 13549–13554 https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1708791114
Natalie H. Brito  and Kimberly G. Noble, Socioeconomic Status and Structural Brain Development, Frontiers in Neuroscience 8 (2014): 276. https://doi:10.3389/fnins.2014.00276
Greg Duncan and Katherine Magnuson, Socioeconomic Status and Cognitive Functioning: Moving from Correlation to Causation, WIREs Cognitive Science 3 (2012): 377-386
Nicole Hair, Jamie L. Hanson, Barbara L. Wolfe, and Seth D. Pollak, Association of Child Poverty, Brain Development, and Academic Achievement, Pediatrics 169, No. 9 (2015): 822-829
Jamie L. Hanson, Wouter van den Bos, Barbara J. Roeber, Karen D. Rudolph, Richard J. Davidson, Seth D. Pollak, Early Adversity and Learning: Implications for Typical and Atypical Behavioral Development, The Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry 58, No. 7 (2017): 770–778 https://doi.org/10.1111/jcpp.12694
Allyson P. Mackey, Amy S. Finn, Julia A. Leonard, Drew S. Jacoby Senghor, Martin R. West, Christopher F. O. Gabrieli et al., Neuroanatomical Correlates of the Income Achievement Gap, Psychological Science 26, No. 6 (2015): 925–933
Barbara Wolfe and Jason Fletcher, The Importance of Family Income in the Formation and Evolution of Non-Cognitive Skills in Childhood, Economics of Education Review 54 (October 2016): 143–154


The Biological Consequences of Socioeconomic Inequalities, edited by Barbara Wolfe, William Evans, and Teresa Seeman (New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 2012).
Barbara Wolfe, Jamie Hanson, Nicole Hair, Amitabh Chandra, Ed Moss, Jay Bhattacharya, and Seth Pollak, Brain Development and Poverty: a First Look, in The Biological Consequences of Socioeconomic Inequalities, edited by Barbara Wolfe, William Evans, and Teresa Seeman (New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 2012).