WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — Recent scientific research shows a link between poverty and violence, citing “toxic stress” from extreme poverty as a factor shaping the brains of young children, making them more prone to violent tendencies in their futures. This discovery may change the way governments and policies target aid toward mothers and their children in impoverished areas.
In his studies of early childhood adversity, University of Cape Town-affiliated neurobiologist Barak Morgan discovered that children who grow up in poverty have “significantly higher rates of substance dependence, criminality, financial problems and single parenthood, and significantly lower income, financial planning skills, socioeconomic status and physical health.”
This conclusion is based on revolutionary research by Canadian Michael Meany. Meany’s research revealed that poorly nurtured lab rats had elevated numbers of epigenetic marks on the brain’s stress gene. This trait also held true for the brains of humans, such as suicide victims that had experienced trauma. Epigenetic marks on the stress gene make organisms less resilient to stress and less primed to thrive.
The type of stressors that causes these epigenetic marks are very prevalent in the lives of impoverished children. The stress of battling to survive, or living with violence, neglect and poor nutrition, can all stunt the intellectual and emotional growth of a child.
This new scientific data has important implications for future foreign aid policy. Based on these discoveries, greater weight should be placed on children long before they enter schooling, because this is when much of brain development takes place. Once a child grows older, it becomes progressively harder to fix problems. Babies raised in neglect and extreme poverty will develop dangerous epigenetic marks, so the sooner aid can reach their families, the better.
Lawrence Aber is a psychologist from New York University’s Steinhardt School of Culture, Education and Human Development, and an expert on the impact of poverty and violence on early child development. According to Aber, “the logic is irrefutable but we haven’t made the policy investments yet.”
Aber recommends large-scale programmatic intervention, in the form of cash payments to poor families, which encourage parents to invest in their children. Encouraging mothers to attend antenatal classes, get their babies immunized and their children to attend school are all important measures.
At a recent UNICEF panel, Harvard scientist Jack Shonkoff nicely summed up the significance of this scientific discovery for impoverished children worldwide: “It’s a matter of figuring out how to protect their developing brains from the toxic stress associated with chronic exposure to violence, really deep poverty, and the day-to day stress of just barely getting by.”