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Cognitive Development In Poor Children

Poverty occurs in a vicious, ruthless cycle that traps individuals, families and communities in a bottomless socioeconomic pit that grows harder to escape, the deeper one gets within it. And it’s not just the present moment that the impoverished must worry about; poverty generally entails a bleak, unstable financial future, too. The problem is even more depressing with respect to children, as their own financial outlooks become practically set in stone before they even develop the abilities to understand what money is. But it is not just poor children who struggle within our capitalistic system. Oddly enough, the power of wealth wields itself against individuals at both ends of the socioeconomic spectrum, and children who live within the gilded confines of affluence may have experiences similar to their poor peers’–although for different reasons. In the modern world, where one’s wealth plays a monumental role in determining one’s access to vital resources, assistance, safety, etc., it is imperative that the effects of wealth (and lack thereof) on youth and their development are explored.

The suppressing nature of poverty, which successfully holds down generation after generation in an unending cycle, can be understood through the term “allostatic load.” Stressors like discrimination, lack of income, lack of housing, and exposure to crime can prove destructive, especially when children are chronically exposed to said stressors. “The body copes with these stresses by adjusting the activity of immune, neurological, metabolic, and other biological systems” (Troxel and Hastings, 2014). Exposure to stress is a part of one’s everyday life, but overstressed children pay dearly. Researchers utilize allostatic load to measure stressors’ effects on the body and determine the point at which the body can no longer adapt, thereby identifying a threshold beyond which the body’s self-regulating systems go into “overdrive” and become more harmful than helpful. The greater the exposure to stressors, the higher the load. The National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent to Adult Health, for which a group of seven to twelfth graders were followed over the course of nearly two decades, concluded that poverty is linked to higher levels of allostatic load. The study emphasized gender, a vital player in determining allostatic load, and measured participants’ burdens using blood pressure, glucose levels, and body mass, among other constructs. At the same time, it looked to family resources, neighborhood safety, and neighborhood affluence as measures of poverty. Researchers observed that participants who grew up in poverty showed greater health issues in adulthood. This positive feedback loop either keeps those in poverty where they are or worsens their situation, challenging the notion that the poor are lazy or responsible for their circumstances. When one’s physical health and cognitive function is constantly impaired, it becomes difficult to obtain jobs or housing, making it difficult to live a fulfilling life.

The aforementioned negative health effects do not present themselves overnight, but rather appear in a gradual process. Children with high allostatic loads tend to be incredibly susceptible to psychological and cognitive issues including poor short-term memory, which is crucial for language development and other cognitive skills. These skills are necessary for success in academics, and without them, students often flounder and suffer worsened allostatic loads. These struggles do not end with poor academic performance. Poverty’s hindrance of executive functioning, the skills required to plan, focus, control impulses and multitask, has obviously global implications. Gary Evans, a professor of environmental and developmental psychology at Cornell University, conducted a longitudinal study whose participants, all impoverished children, evinced more antisocial conduct including aggression and bullying (Valli, 2017). Aggression is linked to a deficit in response inhibition and planning ability, both important in executive functioning. Antisocial behaviors require intervention, as they are true mental health issues. With a lack of access to mental health resources, however, impoverished children are unable to get the help they need. Antisocial behavior hurts social growth and is further exacerbated by stressors, a problem made worse by widespread feelings of helplessness in the same group. In the same study, “Helplessness was assessed by asking the participants to solve an impossible puzzle. Adults growing up in poverty gave up 8 percent more quickly than those who weren't poor as kids” (Valli, 2017). These feelings damage motivation, and hinder productivity and sense of self-worth, which can spiral into depression and suicidal ideation. Poverty not only targets one’s physical well-being but also her emotional wellbeing, ensuring that individuals are suppressed in every way possible.

Studies conducted on children from the other end of the socioeconomic spectrum yield similarly negative findings. Broader society often assumes that because affluent children have access to an abundance of resources, they can effectively utilize those resources to prevent the harm that afflicts poor children. However, there is scant research to support this assumption. Studies have determined three major issues prevalent among children of the well-off: anxiety, depression and substance abuse. A comparative investigation conducted in 1999 by Suniya S. Luthar, studying low-income 10th grade students and their upper class counterparts–most Caucasian and of white-collar suburban families–found that “affluent youth reported significantly higher levels of anxiety across several domains, and greater depression. They also reported significantly higher substance use than inner-city students, consistently indicating more frequent use of cigarettes, alcohol, marijuana, and other illicit drugs” (Luthar and D’Avanzo, 1999). These findings were linked to two possible causes: achievement pressure and isolation from parents.

The two causes, in many ways, go hand in hand. With a host of resources at their fingertips, parents from upper class backgrounds fall victim to unrealistic expectations–for their children to go to top schools, participate and excel in numerous extracurriculars, and more, inducing incredible stress and ultimately increasing their childrens’ allostatic load. Isolation from parents implies a lack of family time, poor relationships with primary caregivers, and a dearth of emotional support. This results from achievement pressures, as children spend so much time pursuing success that they neglect other aspects of their lives. The high-stress environment that results from the fusion of the aforementioned factors can spiral into depression, anxiety, and substance abuse. Depression and anxiety, in turn, lower cognitive flexibility and executive function, paralleling the trends seen among low-income children.

It may come as a surprise that children hailing from both ends of the socioeconomic spectrum share similar experiences with regards to cognitive development. It all boils down to superficially unique stressors induced by their circumstances, which add on to their allostatic load, perpetuating a cycle of negative psychological effects that is difficult to break out of. Research on the effects of varying socioeconomic statuses on cognitive development could potentially yield the discovery of a heretofore overlooked, deep-rooted societal issue and incentivize efforts to resolve it.


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-Rifah Saima

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