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Health & Science

Poverty’s Toll on Young Brains, Academic Achievement Gap

Coburn Dukehart / Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism
Hannah Tunney, 2, holds a book while getting a check-up from nurse practitioner Francesca Vash at Group Health Cooperative health care center in Madison, Wis. on April 15, 2016.
University of Wisconsin-Madison researchers say early steps to improve children's lives will help them succeed later in school and life.

Naja Tunney’s home is filled with books. Sometimes she will pull them from a bookshelf to read during meals. At bedtime, Naja, 5, reads to her 2-year-old sister, Hannah.

“We have books anywhere you sit in the living room,” said their mother, Cheryl Tunney, who curls up with her girls on an oversized green chair to read stories.

Naja and Hannah are beneficiaries of Reach Out and Read, an early intervention literacy program that collaborates with medical care providers to provide free books during check-ups.

“I learn things that my brain will always know,” Naja said during an appointment at Group Health Cooperative’s Capitol Clinic in Madison.

Naja’s and Hannah’s brains are in critical phases of development, and they are being stimulated by a home environment that prioritizes education.

But children who do not have this same experience early in life — especially those growing up in poverty — could experience delayed brain development that significantly harms their educational progress, according to recent research by psychology professor Seth Pollak and economist Barbara Wolfe at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Their study is part of a growing body of socioeconomic brain research documenting what Joan Luby, a child psychiatry professor at Washington University in St. Louis, calls “poverty’s most insidious damage.” Such research is prompting legislators on both sides of the aisle in Wisconsin to explore what more needs to be done to help children succeed.

Credit Coburn Dukehart / Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism
University of Wisconsin-Madison psychology professor Seth Pollak.

Along with graduate students Nicole Hair and Jamie Hanson, Pollak and Wolfe found that poverty can cause structural changes in areas of the brain associated with school readiness skills.

These parts of the brain are susceptible to circumstances often present in poor households, including stress, unstable housing, nutritional deficiencies, low academic stimulation and irregular access to health care.

To isolate the effects of poverty from other factors, Pollak’s study included mostly children of educated mothers — 85 percent reported at least some college-level education and 22 percent had some graduate-level education.

The study examined brain development of 389 mostly white young people ages 4 to 22 with educated mothers. The fathers had similar educational backgrounds.

The findings suggest that while schools have been the focus of reforms aimed at closing Wisconsin’s long-standing racial and economic achievement gaps, efforts perhaps should start much earlier and be directed at raising income levels of poor children.

An estimated 28 percent of the state’s children live below 150 percent of the federal poverty level. Pollak found that income bracket — which for a family of four is $36,450 a year or less — was associated with diminished brain development and learning.

Pollak’s study found that as much as 20 percent of the gap in test scores of low-income children is explained by developmental lags in critical areas of the brain responsible for learning. The largest gaps were among children living below the federal poverty level, $24,300 for a family of four.


“This is suggesting that there is something about a child’s early environment that is affecting the way their neural systems are working that undermine their ability to extract information and succeed in school,” said Pollak, who is also the director of UW-Madison’s Child Emotion Lab.

Other research has shown a connection between early childhood trauma and “toxic stress” on the ability of children to learn.

Gaps big in Wisconsin

Wisconsin has the largest disparity in the country between the performance of black and white students and the rate at which they graduate. The state also has the highest suspension rates for black high school students in the nation, the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism’s Children Left Behind series reported in December.

And Wisconsin has the second-largest poverty gap in the United States between blacks and whites, a disparity that has grown faster than the national average, according to a December report from the UW-Madison Applied Population Lab.

Pollak’s study shows poverty can have biological effects long before children enter the classroom. In 2013, in an earlier study, a team led by Wolfe and Pollak examined how family poverty can affect the rate of brain growth among young children.

Credit Courtesy of Jamie Hanson/Carolina Consortium on Human Development, Duke University
This image shows different fiber bundles in the brain that could be affected by early social neglect. Changes in these pathways may mean information moves less effectively through the brain, resulting in possible problems with memory, attention, visual and spacial skills, planning, thinking and many other 'higher-order' executive functions that children need to do well in school.

They found that infants from lower-income families started life with a similar amount of gray matter to infants whose families were not poor. But by their toddler years, poor children had less total gray matter, they found. The effects of poverty on brain size were strongest among the most impoverished children, with no difference between lower-middle-class and affluent children.

“It’s not like we need to get everybody up to affluence,” Pollak said, “we just need to have kids not living in scarcity.”

Stress adds to school woes

Pollak theorized one reason could be the “pervading sense of stress” that can accompany poverty.

So-called adverse childhood experiences can rewire a child’s brain in a way that makes it harder to learn, Dr. Bruce Perry told a group of Wisconsin juvenile court and child welfare officials meeting in Wisconsin Dells last fall.

Perry, professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Northwestern University, said if the stress is “moderate” and “controllable,” children can develop mechanisms for responding to future, unexpected stresses. But stress caused by factors such as violence or neglect can create a state of alarm that makes children more reactive, often described as the fight, flight or freeze response.

When presented with new material in school, for example, such children may have a hard time activating the thinking part of the brain, he said.

“If you are a child who is dis-regulated … you are so overwhelmed that you shut down your cortex completely and your cortex is unable to actually process information,” Perry said.

“And in order to master the same content, you are required to have 10 times the repetition, which is not going to be provided in the typical classroom environment, and you’re going to fall further behind.”

Parent, child brains linked

Not only are children’s brains more malleable in early childhood, the brains of new parents are also subject to change, according to a March study from the Aspen Institute, an education and policy studies nonprofit organization based in Washington, D.C.

Credit Courtesy of Parker Hoerz
Dr. Dipesh Navsaria is seen in 2011 at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health's free student-run clinic at the Salvation Army Family and Women's Shelter in Madison, Wis.

Dipesh Navsaria, a UW-Madison associate professor of pediatrics who was not involved in the study, said the findings show “the parent and the child both have inherent value, and we should be investing in them both because … that’s where we get an added effect.”

University of Chicago economist James Heckman found it is cheaper to pay for high quality preschool than later interventions such as hiring teachers to create low student-to-teacher ratios, government-funded job training or rehabilitation programs for ex-convicts.

Heckman’s analysis of low-income African-American children who attended the High/Scope Perry Preschool Program in Ypsilanti, Michigan, during the 1960s found that every $1 invested returned about $7 to $12 back to society.

“Investing in disadvantaged young children is a rare public policy initiative that promotes fairness and social justice and at the same time promotes productivity in the economy and in society at large,” Heckman wrote.

That philosophy appears to be gaining traction in Wisconsin. State Sen. Julie Lassa, D-Stevens Point, and Rep. Joan Ballweg, R-Markesan, kicked off the bipartisan Legislative Children’s Caucus in April. Lassa said the goal is to advocate for evidence-based public policies that will benefit the state’s children.

Lassa and Ballweg agree that Pollak’s research provides proof that poverty harms children and alleviating it could provide long-term benefits.

“These children are our future workforce, they’re our future leaders,” Lassa said. “We need to be making sure that they get the best start possible.”

Cap Times reporter Abigail Becker wrote this story while working as an intern at the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism. Wisconsin Public Radio reporter Bridgit Bowden and Center Managing Editor Dee J. Hall contributed to this report. The nonprofit Center ( collaborates with Wisconsin Public Radio, Wisconsin Public Television, other news media and the UW-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication. All works created, published, posted or disseminated by the Center do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of UW-Madison or any of its affiliates.

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