It Sucks to be Poor, Part II

BERKELEY — University of California, Berkeley, researchers have shown for the first time that the brains of low-income children function differently from the brains of high-income kids.

In a study recently accepted for publication by the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, scientists at UC Berkeley’s Helen Wills Neuroscience Institute and the School of Public Health report that normal 9- and 10-year-olds differing only in socioeconomic status have detectable differences in the response of their prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that is critical for problem solving and creativity.

Robert Sanders, Media Relations |02 December 2008

When I lived in the Philippines I quickly discovered that poverty had more subtle effects than I had imagined. Like most Americans, I had seen the television images of crumbling houses and starving kids with their swollen bellies. I am not sure if that is exactly what I expected to see in my little town of Conception, Tarlac, but it is pretty close. And there were certainly lots of crumbling houses and ill fed children. The house next door to mine was a single room, about 12 feet by 12 feet (perhaps 4 meters by 4 meters), occupied by an extended family that often included a dozen people.

That’s the least of it, of course. Maybe even more importantly, poverty had to do with infrastructure. There were the ongoing ‘brown outs’ and ‘black outs’ and minimal indoor plumbing. There were lots of bad roads and poorly running buses; there were no dentists in the rural areas, and no optometrists. People went blind with cataracts from the dust and lost their teeth from eating sugar cane raw. There were also families who had brand new cars; my district was the home district of the Aquino family so we had some good new roads, too. After a while, you noticed that many of the kids at school had small wounds that never quite healed.

They certainly had a lot of energy but these wounds were evidence of chronic, low-level malnutrition. As it turns out, you can be half or one-third or one-fourth starved to death. What happens, often enough, is that your body stops working very well. If you’re a kid, and like all kids, you are constantly scratching your knees or something, these tiny cuts never quite heal. Eventually, we also learned that this low-level malnutrition has cognitive effects as well. Among other things, kids don’t concentrate well when they are poorly fed. I wasn’t surprised, then, to find out that poverty also shapes so-called higher cognitive functions, too, such as creativity.

About Ray Watkins

I was born in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, at Our Lady of the Lake Hospital. I grew up in Houston, as a part of what we only half-jokingly call the Cajun Diaspora. At a certain point during the Regan administration, I had to leave, so I served in the Peace Corps, Philippines, from 1987-89. I didn’t want to return to the United States just yet, so I moved to Paris, France, where I lived for three years or so.

I then moved back to Austin, Texas, where I had received my Masters Degree, and (eventually) began a Ph.D., which I completed in 1999. I spent a year at Temple University and then accepted a position at Eastern Illinois University where I worked until May of 2006. I now work exclusively on line (although that may change) for Johns Hopkins, the Art Institute Online, and Smarthinking.com.

I can be reached most easily via email: raywatkins [that ‘at’ symbol] writinginthewild.com

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