The Psychological Impacts Of Poverty, Digested

street of long abandoned and derelict collapsing houses and commercial buildings

By Emma Young

For a “rich” country, by global standards, the UK has an awful lot of people who are not. Fourteen million people — one fifth of the population — live in poverty. Of these, four million are more than 50% below the poverty line, and 1.5 million are classed as destitute, unable to afford even basic life essentials.

For children who grow up in poverty, there are impacts that go way beyond the fact of material shortages. “Children experience poverty as an environment that is damaging to their mental, physical, emotional and spiritual development,” notes UNICEF. Clearly, there’s a critical role for psychological research in this area, first in revealing just what poverty does to children and adults — but also in developing strategies to ameliorate those impacts.

The psychological effects on children of growing up poor do make for grim reading. A 2009 study published in the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, of 9- and 10-year-olds who differed only in their socioeconomic status, found striking differences in activity in the prefrontal cortex, which is critical for complex cognition. The PFC response of many of the poor children in response to various tests resembled that of some stroke victims. “Kids from lower socioeconomic levels show brain physiology patterns similar to someone who actually had had damage in the frontal lobe as an adult,” commented lead researcher, Robert Knight, professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley.

The kinds of deficits that the team observed could cause problems with self-regulation and behavioural difficulties (both of which have been documented among poorer children), as well as difficulties with reasoning. “This is a wake-up call,” Knight went on. “It’s not just that these kids are poor and more likely to have health problems, but they might actually not be getting full brain development from the stressful and relatively impoverished environment associated with lower socioeconomic status: fewer books, less reading, fewer games, fewer visits to museums.”

Since then, plenty of other studies have found that poverty harms children’s brains. In 2014, experiments led by Michele Tine revealed clear deficits in both verbal and visuospatial memory among poor children. A year later, a paper published in JAMA Paediatrics documented “irregular brain development” in low income children, and tied these lags in the development of the frontal and temporal lobes to substantially lower scores on maths and reading tests. The development of the hippocampus, which is involved in memory, was particularly influenced by the stresses experienced by these children, the team found.

These impacts can be long-lasting. A longitudinal study, published by Gary Evans in PNAS in 2016, found that adults who were poor as children showed memory deficits and experienced greater psychological distress. In 2019, meanwhile, a long-term study of nearly 4,000 families in Canada, led by Paul Hastings, reported that growing up in a poor urban neighbourhood is associated with a doubling in the risk of developing a psychosis-spectrum disorder by middle adulthood.

These studies paint a very bleak picture of the effects of poverty. But not all poor children are affected in the same way — not every impoverished child in the prefrontal cortex functioning study showed deficits, for example. This suggested that there are also protective factors. Further research in this area suggests that overall stress levels and also the behaviour of the people close the child can make a big difference.

Something as simple as planting more trees in schools in disadvantaged areas might help, according to research by a team at the University of Illinois, published in 2018. Ming Kuo and her colleagues quantified the level of tree and grass cover in the schoolyards of 318 elementary schools (in which 87 per cent of kids overall fell into a low family income category) and found a correlation with scores in both maths and reading: the greater the number of trees, the better the results. Based partly on other work finding a link between the abundance of trees and academic performance outside a low-income setting, Kuo thinks there is a meaningful link between the two. “It’s not a surprise to anyone that if you don’t provide air conditioning or heating in a school then maybe the kids aren’t going to do as well. But this is the first time we’ve begun to suspect that the lack of landscaping, such as trees, may help explain, in part, their poorer test scores,” she says…

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