In the run up to the Iowa Caucus and New Hampshire Primary, candidates struggle to gain a foothold on potential voters. Many fault economic disparity as the root cause of other troubling issues like the over incarceration of minorities, limited job creation, and class based differences in health, education, and overall quality of life. All legitimate 2016 problems – ones that require 2016 solutions. And that’s where the politicians’ rhetoric falls short. Too often these rely on policies that ignore the science of the 21st century. Nowhere is this more apparent than in discussions of poverty and economic disparity that ignore the neurology of brain development.
The architectural foundation of neural development is laid down during the first three years of life. The stress associated with poverty, which includes not only economic insecurity but also inadequate housing, and limited opportunities for enrichment activities, disrupts this process. The effects of poverty on areas of the brain related to emotional regulation are of particular concern, as these threaten children’s academic success.
Income is associated with differences in the hippocampus and amygdala. The size and volume of both structures are smaller in poor children than in their more affluent peers. Similarly, recent research finds that income also effects how these structures connect to other regions of the brain. The neural connections of children living in poverty are less efficient, making it more difficult for them to regulate their emotions and behavior (Barch & Luby (2016). Effects of hippocampal and amygdala connectivity in the relationship between poverty and school depression. The American Journal of Psychiatry).
Why should politicians care?
Because if left unattended, the effects of these early neurological alterations result in children’s academic failure and compromised mental and physical well-being. These drive the costs of special education and health care, two high cost items for federal, state and local governments.
More importantly, these early deficits can be overcome with appropriate early intervention to families with children under three years old. The intergenerational cycle of poverty can be broken. But only when policy makers promote solutions that are informed by what science teaches rather than by what they think voters want to hear.
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