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Poverty and Child Brain Damage

By       Message Thomas Riggins     Permalink
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From PET scan of a normal brain
PET scan of a normal brain
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Politicians love to tell us that we live in the richest and greatest country in the world despite the fact that our actual ranking when it comes to overall living standards and democratic rights is far from numero uno. We rank 23rd on the "Satisfaction with Life Index" (Cf. Wikipedia). But no one will get elected telling us we are the 23rd best uber alles in the world.

More to the point, when it comes to how we treat children, it's telling to find out that UNICEF ranks the U.S. at 34 out of 35 industrialized countries (we beat out Romania but eight other former east European socialist countries take better care of their children than we do)-- Washington Post 4-15- 2013.

It just so happens that 22% of children in the United States live in poverty and are apt to remain there as long as the Republicans and the right use their political power to cut welfare, food stamps, day care, education, feeding programs in schools, tax breaks for low income families, elimination of the sales tax for the poor, decent wages for working people, unemployment insurance, immigration reform, and continue to obstruct the right to vote and union organization with respect to minorities and working people.
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What is particularly vile about the these right-wing anti-children policies is that scientists have shown that living in poverty has horrible consequences for the normal development of children's brains, damages their emotional health, and results in under achievement academically.

Scientists have shown, according to Science Daily 7-22-15, ("Poverty's most insidious damage is to a child's brain") that low income children living in poverty have mental lags and abnormal development in their frontal and temporal lobes resulting in test scores 20 per cent lower than the norm for children not living in poverty.

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We should also note that the brain has not fully developed into a mature organ in humans until the mid 20s. The result of temporal lobe damage will impair normal comprehension and understanding of speech and frontal lobe impairment will effect normal thinking, planning, and decision making ability, personality development and moral and ethical comprehension and behavior among other higher mental functions.

The information in this article from SD is based on the research reported by Dr. Seth Pollak et. al., in "Poverty's most insidious damage: The developing brain" published in JAMA Pediatrics, July 2015. Besides this article there is an editorial by Dr. Joan A. Luby of the Washington University School of Medicine, who says "early childhood interventions to support a nurturing environment for these children must now become our top public health priority for the good of all." Dr Luby's own research has also shown that the brains of children living in poverty can be damaged causing problems for the the rest of their lives.

What can be done to help these children? Should the government guarantee a minimum income to families with children to keep them above the poverty line? Should pressure be applied to the Republicans and other rightist politicians to drop their opposition to food stamps, free meals, and other programs designed to help the poor? Should these programs get more funding so that no child is left behind in poverty?

It seems it is the job of the parents of the children in poverty to solve this problem (providing of course they didn't grow up in poverty themselves and suffer some of the problems discussed in this article). Dr. Luby's studies have shown that properly nurturing parents "can offset some of the negative effects" inflicted on the brains of poor children.

"Our research has shown," Dr.Luby writes, "that the effects of poverty on the developing brain, particularly in the hippocampus [part of the temporal lobe] are strongly influenced by parenting and life stresses experienced by the children."

This suggests that if we teach nurturing skills to parents, especially poor parents, then maybe the children will benefit. This is something the fiscally responsible Republican Congress might be inclined to support. We really don't have to make any radical social changes in the way the richest and greatest country (or at least the 23rd such country) runs its social programs (or lack thereof) , we only have to encourage and teach better nurturing techniques to parents-- this shouldn't cost too much.

"In developmental science and medicine," Dr. Luby wrote, "it is not often that the cause [poverty] and solution [better parenting] of a public health problem become so clearly elucidated. It is even less common that feasible and cost effective solutions [teach parents how to nurture] to such problems are discovered [maybe] and are within reach." So cost effective that the 1% won't even have to face a tax increase or the military a budget cut.

In closing we should consider what is happening to children all around the world. If the Numero Uno country has over 20% of its children facing permanent brain damage and life long mental disabilities as a result of childhood impoverishment what is happening to the billions of children in the third world living in areas of armed conflict, as refugees, in countries with undeveloped and ruined economic conditions? How will future Greek children compete with their German counterparts
twenty years from now if the EU is still around?

One thing is certain. The current dominant economic system in the world will not solve the problems of these children, and the problems of child poverty will not be cured by blaming them on poor parenting as the most loving and nurturing parents in the world cannot feed and nuture their children on words alone.


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Born Lake Worth, FL 1942. Educated FSU and Graduate Center CUNY. Currently teaching philosophy in NYC. Associate editor of Political Affairs online.

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