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Poverty = stress = brain impairment

A new study finds that students who grew up in poverty have less working memory than their middle class peers. The researchers say that the cause is the stress that living in poverty puts on the brain, as measured by physiological indicators like blood pressure.

Working memory is crucial for everyday activities as well as for forming long-term memories.

"It's critical for learning," [the lead researcher] said. "If you don't have good working memory, you can't do things like hold a phone number in your head or develop a vocabulary."

When the researchers analyzed the relationships among how long the children lived in poverty, their allostatic load [stress level] and their later working memory, they found a clear relationship: The longer they lived in poverty, the higher their allostatic load and the lower they tended to score on working-memory tests. Those who spent their entire childhood in poverty scored about 20 percent lower on working memory than those who were never poor, [the lead researcher] said.

The Economist filed this study under "neuroscience and social deprivation," an apt description.

The local blog the Language Log has a lengthy post looking at the data in the study (link directs to a PDF of the full text of the study).

Other blogs are pondering the meaning of this study. Unqualified Offerings suggets: "Mightn’t the solution to “the culture of poverty” be more assistance rather than less, and less paternalism rather than more?"

Offerings also mentions Jonathan Kozol's writings "about how much work is involved in being poor." This study makes it clear that children are being affected by the stress of that work.

Like Offerings, I hope that this study can be used to bolster the argument for more generous social safety nets. Kevin Drum on Mother Jones' blog is a little worried about the implications though: "What would it take to make the lives of poor children substantially less stressful?  The resources to tackle that could be harder to marshal than the resources to eradicate poverty itself. "

Yes, those resources could be harder to marshal, but they may be necessary to truly erase the achievement gap.

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Comments (2)

Submitted by Nijmie Dzurinko (not verified) on April 9, 2009 1:04 am

Study or no study, don't the findings here suggest that what we need to move us forward is not merely a solution to the problems of public schools, but a solution to the problem of poverty - i.e. the *end* to poverty in the richest country in the world? Are the current "reforms" in public education just the spasms of a group of people who are deathly afraid that the public school system - parents, teachers, and students, could be the on the leading edge of solving this problem because they are so familiar with its symptoms?

Submitted by Erika Owens (not verified) on April 9, 2009 12:00 pm

I think that the findings definitely do suggest that we need to look at the bigger picture. I don't think we need a study to tell us that, but it is nice to see some concrete evidence to support a push for overarching change. It's great, and important, to work on alleviating the effects of poverty--access to good health care, housing, schools, etc, but clearly even if you work on the individual pieces, if you don't attack the root cause--the poverty itself--your gains will be limited.

This harkens back to Eric's post earlier this week, schools are just the start of community change. And, yes, organizing around school change is certainly a strong starting point.

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