Stressed Out On Poor Street

Have you ever wondered why poverty passes on from generation to generation? Why a majority of poor children underachieve later on in life even when presented with opportunities? The Economist provides some evidence that might explain intergenerational cycles of poverty…

According to researchers, the stress of growing up poor affects the brain which in turn affects the ability to retain and process information…This together with the lack of nutrition and opportunities affects the ability of poor children to compete with richer children as adults…

Edited to add:
Elizabeth Gould, a researcher from Princeton University, thinks chronic stress of living in slums causes the brain to change biologically…

Subsequent experiments [by Gould] have teased out a host of other ways stress can damage the developing brain. For example, if a pregnant rhesus monkey is forced to endure stressful conditions–like being startled by a blaring horn for 10 minutes a day–her children are born with reduced neurogenesis, even if they never actually experience stress once born. This pre-natal trauma, just like trauma endured in infancy, has life-long implications. The offspring of monkeys stressed during pregnancy have smaller hippocampi, suffer from elevated levels of glucocorticoids and display all the classical symptoms of anxiety. Being low in a dominance hierarchy also suppresses neurogenesis. So does living in a bare environment. As a general rule of thumb, a rough life–especially a rough start to life–strongly correlates with lower levels of fresh cells. “Poverty is stress,” Gould says, with more than a little passion in her voice. “One thing that always strikes me is that when you ask Americans why the poor are poor, they always say it’s because they don’t work hard enough, or don’t want to do better. They act like poverty is a character issue.”
Gould’s work implies that the symptoms of poverty are not simply states of mind; they actually warp the mind. Because neurons are designed to reflect their circumstances, not to rise above them, the monotonous stress of living in a slum literally limits the brain.

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