Childhood Poverty Can Do Permanent Harm to the Brain

By State Senator Julie Lassa


At the inaugural meeting of Wisconsin’s first Legislative Children’s Caucus, a bipartisan group of legislators and I heard a presentation about research being conducted on the effects that poverty has on the brain development of young children.  Researchers from the University of Wisconsin-Madison showed us results that suggest that changes in brain development caused by the neurological effects of childhood stress before age eight contribute to delays in learning ability and a host of other mental and physical problems later on in life.     


Research has shown that children who live in poverty often experience high amounts of stress.  They may not be able to eat regularly or live in safe housing.  Additionally, their parents may need to work more than one job and be absent for long periods.  Sadly, statistics say that these children are more likely to be victims of abuse and neglect and live with adults with substance abuse problems and mental illness.  These kinds of stressors are defined as “toxic stress,” stress that is strong, frequent and prolonged.  All of these adverse experiences cause the parts of the brain that respond to stress to react much more frequently for children in poverty than for those from more affluent homes.


Because the brains of very young children develop rapidly, the brain’s reaction to toxic levels of stress can cause very fundamental problems.  The parts of the brain responsible for the body’s “fight, flight or freeze” mechanism can be easily aroused, interfering with the development of parts of the brain responsible for learning, reading and critical thinking.  The UW researchers presented us with images of brain scans that show that children affected by childhood poverty had less gray matter and fewer neurological connections in these regions of the brain, a physical effect that impacts a child’s learning and development.


In fact, their research shows that developmental delays in the frontal and temporal lobes of the brain were responsible for as much as 20 percent of the gap in test scores of children living at 150 percent of the federal poverty level, which is $36,450 a year for a family of four.  It’s clear that the impact of toxic stress makes it harder for children in poverty to learn, pay attention, regulate their emotions, remember, or process complex ideas.


This should concern us all, because poverty in Wisconsin is growing.  According to the UW-Madison Applied Population Laboratory, poverty in Wisconsin reached its highest level in 30 years in the five-year period ending in 2014.  Poverty went up significantly in 31 Wisconsin counties, including 11 of the 15 most populous ones.  Three counties in the 24th State Senate district – Adams, Monroe and Jackson – had poverty rates above the national average.  Of greatest concern is that nearly one in five Wisconsin children was living in poverty – nearly a quarter million children in all.


These children are our future workforce, our future leaders.  We need to do all we can to make sure they get off to the best start possible.   Fortunately, there are interventions that can help promote more stable and secure homes for children and their families who live in poverty, and reduce, or even reverse, the neurological effects of stress.  Studies show that such interventions are much more cost-effective than the social costs of greater educational failure, crime, health problems, and the other negative long-term effects of developmental problems caused by poverty and toxic stress.


It will be the job of the Children’s Caucus, which I am proud to chair along with Rep. Joan Ballweg (R-Markesan), to find common ground on evidence-based policies to make life better for all of Wisconsin’s children.  The wellbeing of our youngest and most vulnerable citizens shouldn’t be a partisan issue – it’s too important to Wisconsin’s future.


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