How Poverty Can Damage Children’s Brains

Child working on schoolwork with head on deskLiving in poverty may damage children’s brains, according to a study published today in JAMA Pediatrics. About 22% of children live below the poverty line, and nearly half (45%) of all children live in low-income families who do not have enough money to cover basic expenses. The study was published alongside an editorial from child psychiatrist Joan L. Luby, who argues that the study provides a compelling case for early childhood interventions targeted to children living in poverty.

Research consistently finds that children who live in poverty do not fare as well on measures of academic achievement as children who do not live in poverty. For example, one study found that toddlers whose families were impoverished had IQs six points lower than their average-income peers—a gap that triples to 18 points over the course of childhood.

Childhood Poverty and Brain Development

Researchers have long known that children who live in poverty are more likely to experience academic difficulties, but explanations for this phenomenon vary. A team from the University of Wisconsin-Madison spent six years performing MRI brain scans on 389 neurotypical children and young adults who ranged in age from 4 to 22. Each child underwent three brain scans, providing information on their brain development over time.

Children living in poverty showed diminished brain development and reduced gray matter in the frontal lobe, which plays a role in executive function, attention, and emotion regulation. These children also appeared to have less development in the temporal lobe, which plays a key role in language development. Children living in poverty also had significant structural differences in the hippocampus, which aids long-term memory and spatial reasoning.

Using standardized tests, researchers also measured children’s IQs. They found that poverty-related brain changes yielded a 20% drop in educational and standardized test performance.

Previous research has found a number of differences between children living in poverty and those living in higher-income homes. One study found that impoverished children hear millions fewer words than other children do, which can have a devastating effect on cognitive development. Other research points to the negative impact that chronic stress has been shown to have on brain development.


  1. Burns, M., PhD. (2015, July 14). Path out of poverty? Education plus neuroscience. Retrieved from
  2. Child poverty. (n.d.). Retrieved from
  3. Poverty’s most insidious damage is to a child’s brain. (2015, July 20). Retrieved from

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  • Susanna

    July 20th, 2015 at 4:57 PM

    I read things like this and I see how well most of us live and It makes me wonder is there all of this poverty in other places or is it all aorund me and I always choose not to see it? I don’t know, it just seems so terribly wrong that there are even kids who have to live without their basic needs being met when I have so much. There has to be some way, some reasonable way, to get things into a better balance.

  • Jon

    July 21st, 2015 at 8:03 AM

    If only children who grew up in impoverished environments had the same access and opportunities for learning that other children did… but i guess that is a pipe dream

  • shana

    July 21st, 2015 at 3:04 PM

    When children do not have the same access that others do, then it is only natural that it will impact them in a negative way. They will not have a well developed vocabulary, in many cases they will not develop that natural love of reading and learning that the kids with more access to these educational tools and resources are going to have. I am not sure at what point you get to the point of no return, where they will not be bale to catch back up to their peers, but this is when the teachers and the schools have to step in and do as much as they can to supplement what these children are missing out on at home.

  • Lania

    July 22nd, 2015 at 7:55 AM

    So it might not genetically alter the brain but of course it can obviously be a detriment to them

  • eden

    July 23rd, 2015 at 4:12 PM

    When I see things like this it makes me have so much respect for teachers and all the things that many of them are up against that we may not ever consider. Not only are they having to meet the needs of so many unique and individual learners in their classrooms, they are also having to deal with so many things that are out of their control. And they are still expected to make each and every child a success.

  • Norah

    July 24th, 2015 at 10:03 AM

    When children have to grow up in an environment like this, it naturally stunts the possibility that they will have to grow intellectually.
    They have to be stimulated, they have to be encouraged to learn new words and to read and vocalize and when the parents are working all the time just to make ends meet or worse yet they are raised by someone like a grandparent, often these are the pieces that go missing.

  • yolanda

    July 25th, 2015 at 7:27 AM

    When you grow up impoverished the way that I did, nothing is ever going to come to you easily. You have to scratch and fight for every single thing that you get. It is not about whether the parents have enough money or not. I think that for me it was about the fact that we did not have a lot but it never stopped my mom from encouraging us and telling us that we just had to work a little harder. I think that she instilled this work ethic in us that may not necessarily be the norm when families have lived in this kind of poverty generation after generation. They become so beat down that it is difficult to tell your kids to fight for it.

  • Lane

    July 27th, 2015 at 10:45 AM

    I am sorry but in our country of plenty this is unacceptable

  • Frannie

    July 28th, 2015 at 5:29 PM

    I guess that I am astonished that growing up in an under privileged home or impoverished conditions can have this much impact upon a child’s mental capabilities and development. It is as if this world of poverty is snuffing out the very potential that so many of our young children could have but they are just never given the chance to make a real go of it.

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