Poverty is Trauma
Kids growing up in poverty are constantly releasing the stress hormone cortisol, which can give them short attention spans, restlessness, and short tempers. Physically, they feel the same kind of heart-pounding stress an adult feels after a car wreck. And they feel it all the time.
If you think about the impact on education, imagine if right after you were in a car crash or had a huge health scare, I walked up to you and said, ‘I need you to take a test.’ Or, ‘you just need to sit down and focus.’ Could you do it? Would you perform well? It’s doubtful.
And for kids, with their frontal lobe and brain functioning still developing well into their 20s, lingering effects of poverty are even more significant.
Experiencing prolonged adversity takes its toll. Research indicates that even more￼ striking than lack of adequate nutrition and limited access to consistent healthcare, chronic stress, across the longterm, makes children and adolescents susceptible to cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure, depression, and diabetes.
The impact upon the brain, development and functioning, for children with chronic financial adversity ￼is commensurate with those suffering from other forms of post-traumatic stress disorder: the hippocampus part of their brains is atrophied; the amygdala, which regulates the processing of acute emotional responses, is overwhelmed. Chronic financial stress experienced by children can be devastating for learning/education, since the hippocampus and amygdala, in tandem, regulate emotional responses and are also critical in the formation of memory, consolidated knowledge, and spatial awareness.
Poverty Affects One In Six American Children
Poverty during childhood development has immediate effects on cognitive ability and neurological activity. Children from low-SES backgrounds show decreased levels of cognitive function and brain activity across numerous domains. The most severe effects are found in language/communication and regulation of executive function (attention, organizing, self-monitoring, prioritizing, planning).
Snapshots of family poverty in data from 2018 showed a troubling picture for America’s youth, with 13 million children food insecure and one in six children living in poverty (research stats were collected before the Covid-19 pandemic). Living in a financially unstable environment can threaten a child’s sense of safety because it may mean they cannot access basic needs, like food, shelter, and healthy relationships, on a consistent basis.
Children who live in poverty move more frequently, have families more likely to deal with eviction/housing instability/credit problems,￼ have reduced ability to attend school on a regular basis or access curriculum virtually, and may have parents who work several jobs making them less accessible for quality child and parent time.
Long-standing financial hardship IS trauma. It changes the brain, affects everyday functioning, restricts life experience, and ultimately, personal outcomes.
- Childrensnational.org (Disclosure: Dr. Siddique previously worked at the adolescent medicine department at Children’s Hospital, Washington DC)
- American Academy of Pediatrics (Www. AAP.org)
Also see the mental health blog at Embolden on racial trauma and the brain: