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Poverty and Learning

This blog was written by Tamela Spann of the Mary Black Foundation, a private foundation established to improve the health of Spartanburg County, South Carolina. You can view the original post here.


Photo courtesy of the Mary Black Foundation

I recently shared a link to a USA Today article, “More children living in poverty now than during recession,[1] with several colleagues. The title is a bit misleading as the article’s primary focus is about the effect of poverty on the brain development of young children. The article referenced a recent study published in The Journal of the American Medical Association Pediatrics[2] which found that living in poverty significantly diminishes the brain’s gray matter, the tissue that processes information.

According to the article, children growing up in homes with an income below the federal poverty line, $24,250/yr for a family of four, will experience a reduction of brain volume in areas of learning, specifically the frontal lobe, the temporal lobe, and the hippocampus.  The implications of this study and its impact in the classroom cannot be ignored. Let’s consider the impact to the frontal lobe. A reduction of tissue in this area of the brain means that reasoning, planning, parts of speech, movement, emotions, and problem solving are all adversely compromised. What does this look like in the classroom? This may be the kindergarten student with delayed speech or the student with self-control issues. It may eventually become the recalcitrant teenager who is at-risk of being expelled from school or worse a part of the criminal justice system.  These are the children who may be placed in special education because of their inability to learn as quickly as their peers, or who are unable to control their emotions resulting in aggressive behavior.

Why is this important? It is important because living in poverty negatively impacts the healthy development of children. If we continue to ignore the growing gap between the rich and the poor and the impact of systemic and behavioral causes of chronic poverty, we will continue to find ourselves in the middle or the back of the pack as it relates to an educated citizenry and a healthy economy.


[1] Calfas, Jennifer (2015, July 21). More children living in poverty now than during recession.  USA Today retrieved from

[2] Hair, N., PhD, Hanson, J.L., PhD, Wolfe, B.L., PhD, & Pollak, S.D., PhD. (2015).  Association of child poverty, brain development, and academic achievement. JAMA Pediatrics

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