University of Wisconsin–Madison
Fast Focus Research/Policy Brief Icon

The brain science of poverty and its policy implications

A large body of research suggests that children growing up in poverty are more likely to struggle in school than their more advantaged peers, resulting in an income achievement gap. Emerging research, however, is moving beyond correlation to establish a causal relationship between growing up in poverty and inhibited development in key parts of the brain that govern learning and behavior. Findings suggest that aspects of poverty that impede brain development go beyond limited financial resources to include neighborhood violence, low-quality schools, environmental toxins, and unstable family life. This brief explores what is known about the brain science of poverty, what new research suggests, and the policy implications of emerging findings.

Takeaways:

  • Children in poverty are often exposed to negative influences on brain activity and development, whereas, higher-income children benefit not only from fewer negative exposures but also from more language and cognitive enrichment.
  • Aspects of poverty that impede brain development go beyond limited financial resources to include neighborhood violence, low-quality schools, environmental toxins, and unstable family life.
  • Infants whose families are poor and nonpoor have similarly sized brains at birth, but around age 2 brain scans of poor versus nonpoor children start to show differences in the rate of brain growth.
  • Measures of brain growth do not appear to be permanent: researchers see evidence that the effects of poverty on the brain can be reversed/corrected by identifying and offsetting negative environmental influences.

Categories

Child Development & Well-Being, Child Poverty, Children, Early Childhood Care & Education, Education & Training, Family & Partnering, Family & Partnering General, Health, Inequality & Mobility, Inequality & Mobility General, K-12 Education, Neighborhood Effects, Place, Social Determinants of Health, Transition to Adulthood