While research has long linked lower incomes with lower scholastic achievement among children, a new study found that poverty may also have a measureable impact on a child’s biology, fueling that achievement gap.
In the study, researchers at the University of Michigan, Duke University, and the University of Wisconsin analyzed the MRI scans of 389 children and young adults, ages 4 to 22, obtained over a six-year period. The analysis showed that among poorer participants, there was atypical structural development in the areas of the brain related to academic and later vocational success.
Researchers found that children whose families earned less than 1.5 times the federal poverty level annually displayed three to four percentage points below the developmental norm. Among children in families earning less than the poverty level, that gap widened to eight to 10 percentage points.
The physiological differences had significant implications, the study found. Children from lower-income households, on average, scored 4 to 7 fewer points on standardized tests, the authors reported. And developmental deficits in the frontal and temporal lobes of lower-income students could account for up to 20 percent of the achievement gap.
“Our work suggests that specific brain structures tied to processes critical for learning and educational functioning (e.g., sustained attention, planning, and cognitive flexibility) are vulnerable to the environmental circumstances of poverty (such as stress, limited stimulation, and nutrition),” the authors wrote in the paper, which was published in the current issue of JAMA Pediatrics. “If so, it would appear that children’s potential for academic success is being reduced at young ages by these circumstances.”
There is hope, however, the authors said. Because the problem is not inherent, it could be reversed.
“The brain is malleable. We know that it responds to environmental conditions—positively and negatively—and continues to develop into young adulthood,” lead author Nicole Hair, Robert Wood Johnson Scholar in Health Policy Research with the Department of Health Management and Policy at the University of Michigan, said in a statement. “It’s not that these children’s outcomes are predetermined. With intervention, it may be possible to alter this link.”
The study, “Association of Child Poverty, Brain Development, and Academic Achievement” bears particular import for the African-American community. According to Census figures, the median income of Black Americans is the lowest among all racial groups and about 59 percent of White median income. African Americans were also three times as Whites to live in poverty at 27.2 percent and 9.6 percent, respectively.