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Growing Up in Poverty and Its Impact on Children

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Poverty is defined as an individual being unable to meet one’s basic needs. Such needs include water, food, clothes, shelter, healthcare, and education. Poverty is a major influence on the failing childhood development that happens in not only the United States but is experienced globally. Jeffery Jensen Arnett (2016), author of Human Development a Cultural Approach, reports, “that with the respect to income, about 40% of the world’s population lives on less than two dollars per day, and 80% of the world’s population lives on family income of less than $6,000 per year”. Along with that, in the book socioeconomic status is defined as a person’s educational level, income level, and occupational level. It has been said that socioeconomic status is highly important in shaping human development. This paper is going to help portray the rates of poverty around the world and show that the conditions these children are living in, especially at a young age, have a major impact on the development of their brain.

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Consider the following scenario: You live in an insignificant, rundown trailer with your family of nine. You have to share a room with most of your siblings. Your trailer has no heat for the winter, and you worry every month whether your parents will even have enough money to pay the rent. You could go days without seeing any food because you never know where your next meal is coming from, it could be from the dumpsters. You wear the same clothes for weeks at a time, and never get to practice proper hygiene. You are not sent to school because your parents need to use that money towards your basic human needs. Family members are at risk of becoming unhealthy and dying due to the lack of nutrition and their basic needs being met to survive. Unfortunately, many families in the world experience this or a similar scenario. It is not hard to comprehend on how these types of scenarios could impact brain development.

Poverty is a major issue in today’s society. Poverty USA shared, “In 2018, 38.1 million lived in poverty in America” (2018). To some people this number might not be a lot considering how many people live in America, but it has been reported that when children grow up in poverty, they are more likely to raise their own children in the same manner. Research has proven that exposure to poverty during childhood can affect one’s brain development. Along with poverty comes many factors, such as mal-nutrition, poor health, and so forth. Growing up in such conditions can have negative effects on the brain which impacts language, learning, and attention. The Director of the Center for Neuroscience and Society at the University of Pennsylvania shared, “Where a child grows up in impoverished conditions…with limited cognitive stimulation, high levels of stress, and so forth, that person is more likely to grow up with compromised physical and mental health and lowered academic achievement”(Lempin, 2012, p.428). Many people today are suffering from the consequence around something that was out of their control.

Exposure to poverty puts developing children at risk for many health issues. Being properly nourished is an important factor to living a healthy life without unnecessary risks and health issues. However, people who live in poverty usually don’t get the choice to eat whenever and whatever they desire. Most of the time they never know when they will get their next meal. In a scientific study, Sarah Jensen, Anne Berne and Charles Nelson (2017) states, “poverty-related risks can induce changes across key biological axes that, in turn, can mediate adverse effects of poverty on children’s neurocognitive development”. They found that malnutrition is one of these poverty related risks. When the body is deprived of the needed nutrients or calories for everyday functioning of the body’s metabolic process it becomes discombobulated, which in turn causes neutral functioning and growth. They also reported, “The availability of nutrients also regulated the synthesis and activity of key neurotransmitters underlying cognitive processing and mood”. The human body needs the proper nutrition and when that is not delivered it causes developmental issues to the brain and associated health risks.

Research has proven poverty environments are not stimulating and in return impact child development to a great extent. These environments create a lot of stress, low support systems, and are not stimulating for the individuals. This kind of environment has shown negative outcomes for cognitive development in children. Researchers looked at the association between poverty and the hippocampus, an area in the brain involved in memory and learning, and it shows that it is strongly affected by stress. In the scientific study, scientists reported, “children from lower SES backgrounds had less gray matter and participants from more affluent backgrounds had great concentrations of gray matter”. Thus, exposure to poverty has major effects on the development of these brain regions. In a different study, it explained, “the amygdala and hippocampus are structures in the brain involved in stress regulation and emotional processing and are known to be sensitive to environmental stimuli”. Thus, if you are in a non-stimulating environment those two structures in the brain are going to be sensitive to the environment. Children in poverty are known to struggle and go through stressful times throughout their entire life. Therefore, these events in their life are going to have negative effects on a developing child due to poverty.

Socioeconomics statue (SES) is highly important in shaping human development. Kolb and Gibb (2016) express, “that a low SES in childhood correlates with poor cognitive development”. Research done by Jamie Hanson, Nicole Hair, Dingang Shan, Feng Shi, John Gilmore, Barbara Wolf, Seth Pollak helps to support Kolb and Gibbs statement. Hanson and her colleagues conducted an experiment showing how living in a low SES family influences your brain development from the beginning. They said, “living in poverty places children at very high risk for problems across a variety of domains, including schooling, behavioral regulation, and health” (Hanson et al., 2013, p.1). In the study, the initial sample consisted of 110 healthy children from newborn to 4-year-old. A total of 338 MRI tests were acquired and two hundred to three hundred were able to be segment scans for measuring and visualizing the brain. There were 55 infants who followed a longitudinally study and 22 infants were scanned once at various ages. Participants were drawn from families with low incomes, ranging from 4% to 400% of the federal poverty level. They are doing MRI’s scans and observations of children who live-in low-income places to gather results on how living in a low SES family affects a developing child. From this experiment, they found that when compared to children from high SES, children from the poor have lower total average gray matter and lower frontal and parietal gray matter volumes. Thus, it showed as developing children aged the difference in brain volume widened. Small volumes in this brain tissue were related to greater behavior problems in the preschool years.

Going through an educational program and succeeding in it is something that is extremely valued in society. People take education very seriously, for it will help further you in your future endeavors. Although this is the case for most people, children in poverty do not worry about their education rather worry about their basic needs as a human. Children growing up in poverty are at a disadvantage when it comes to learning, as research above has shown about the toll that health issues, negative environment, and low SES affects the child’s brain development. Researchers conducted a study and found results that clearly showed that poverty negatively affected student’s achievement. Misty Lacour and Laura Tissington reported on a study conducted by Sum and Fogg “that poor students are ranked in the 19th percentile on assessments while students from a mid-upper income family are ranked in the 66th percentile on assessments” (Lacour, 201, p.522). These children are scoring significantly below average on these assessment tests. These scores, in addition to the cost of education, hinder the child’s ability to further their education.

I have mentioned above many of the physical effects that poverty has on the brain, but there are also physiological effects too. Parental Psychopathology Research conducted a study, focusing on mothers with disadvantaged psychopathology, mothers in poverty. Much of the extensive research addressed problems of depression and of substance abuse in the mothers. A result of the depression in mothers, it showed that “they tended to be less attentive to their children, between disengagement and intrusiveness” (Luthar, 1999, p.42). On top of that they express more negative attribution about their children, and are at risk for hostile, coercive parenting as well as child maltreatment. Children growing up in such an environment is detrimental to their physiological mind. As they transition to school those effects are noticeable in children, because they often feel ashamed or embarrassed given the conditions they were raised in. As a result, most kids develop insecurities, have low self-esteem, and become anti-social. Never really getting involved in extracurricular activity, or a strong friend group. This more than likely results in them dropping out or getting involved in illegal activities that just set them up for the same lifestyle as their childhood.

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In conclusion, the thought of extreme amounts of poverty in the world is disheartening. Research has shown just how detrimental the effects of poverty are and how it impacts the development of children. They are at risk of major health issues due to their financial means, the lack of proper nutrition, exposure to negative environments, and their overall lifestyle. These not only cause health issues, but psychological issues as well. As a result, the children experience behavioral problems, and are not set up to succeed in school. Oftentimes parents who live in this lifestyle take it out on the kid by talking down to them or sometimes mistreating them. As a result, children see themselves as not worthy enough causing them to develop insecurities which set them up to cycle back into the same situation as their parents. The rates of poverty around the world impact the conditions these children are living in and have a major impact on the development of their brain. 

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Growing Up In Poverty And Its Impact On Children. (2021, December 16). GradesFixer. Retrieved June 8, 2023, from
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