Poverty’s Effects on Children and the Rest of Us

Poverty diminishes general health. It causes stress. And now we know it also affects working memory. We’ve known about the debilitating effects of poverty for a long time but a new study documents adverse effects on brain function.

A few years ago we lived in one of the poorer neighborhoods in a very poor town in central Oklahoma. On any warm summer night I could go out on the porch and hear people shouting at each other. The level of stress in that economically strapped neighborhood was widespread. High blood pressure, anxiety and domestic violence followed.

I grew up in that neighborhood, in that environment. We weren’t aware of stress, we just lived it. It was so much a part of our lives that we didn’t identify it as anything but normal. Poverty is stressful, but talking about stress when you’re struggling to survive seems a luxury so it goes un-noted.

When kids live with this kind of stress it takes many forms, one of which is irregular sleep patterns, nightmares and insecurity. Unless the adults are wise, dysfunctional behavior takes hold and the family adjusts to both threats to emotional maturity and physical health.

The study’s mention of impaired working memory adds another dimension. One can imagine what this means to classroom function. Most likely it means nonlinear thinking which places different demands on teaching.

I produced a video on street children in Brazil some years ago and these kids were unable to give directions to places where they hung out daily. It wasn’t inarticulateness it was life experience that caused this inability.

They lived their lives in episodes of peace interrupted by violence. They were frequently beaten, chased away from stores and parks, and shot. Seven were killed a few weeks before I went to research the video.

This episodic life made it impossible for them to construct a simple narrative such as how to walk two blocks, turn right and arrive at the bus station on the corner.

Their disordered lives were so fragmented they remembered episodes of violence but linear memory was almost nonfunctional. This effect was environmental, not nutritional. But the interrelationship between environment and health is so organic, how can one approach health and not also address emotional and economic development, education and employment, and good governance and justice. Or does that make it too complicated and leave us saying we’ll always have the poor among us and so we can forget about it?

It’s clear enough that poverty is a breeding ground for human diminishment and we need to plant different seeds than the weeds of poor nutrition, poor education and stress. We can’t allow poverty to create memory loss among the affluent. If we do, we will all be diminshed.

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