Researchers speaking at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Boston have offered an explanation to one of those problems that seemed intractable, something of which many school teachers have long been aware, that cycles of poverty perpetuate themselves, that some born in impoverished circumstances seem trapped, despite various state interventions.
At a Friday morning news briefing, researchers said impoverished conditions early in life could have dramatic affects on the brain’s development and function.
Children who grow up in environments with family stress, negative social and environmental characteristics, and little cognitive stimulation may not fully develop brain areas critical for learning, memory, and language abilities, the panelists said.
Because poverty is generally associated with lower performance on many cognitive diagnostics, the researchers said poverty “presumably plays a role in the persistence of poverty across generations.”
“We are looking for why poverty gets under the skin and into the brain and the immune system,” said Harvard researcher Jack Shonkoff.
In stressful situations like poverty and violence, Shonkoff said, the body releases chemicals that affect organs including the heart and brain. These chemicals, he said, alter the hippocampus and affect cognition in the brain, and may lead to diabetes and cardiac disease.
To counter the negative effects of poverty early in life, the researchers urged schools and other organizations to encourage parents to read to their children.
“Encouraging kids to go to school is not enough to close academic achievement gaps,” said Columbia University researcher Jeanne Brooks-Gunn, adding that some parents should be guided on how best to help their children academically thrive.
15 February 2008
The research raises numerous questions on the nature-nurture debate, and would seem to imply that Government policies that seek to address poverty through cash benefits alone are doomed to failure. The research would also seem to explain why children from similar materially poor backgrounds may achieve very different futures.
It raises questions for churches commenting on government policy; as well as stressing the material needs of families, there is a need to stress the need for stability and love. But didn’t we know that all along anyway?