It has long been known that the stress of grinding poverty can impair brain function, but new studies show that it can harm cognitive development in poverty's youngest victims.
Poor kids start school behind their wealthier classmates, according to a new Brookings study.
Kindergartners from middle-class families outperformed children from poor families in skills like counting and recognizing basic shapes, and middle-class children performed three times better in recognizing letters and sequencing skills, according to the study. Advancements in these tasks can be attributed to the amount of time that parents have to teach their children — and poor parents often have less. But neuroscientists are finding that brains are shaped by early experience.
Neurons that "fire together, wire together," and the brain development is "cumulative," according to research from the Annie E. Casey Foundation. Reading to young children, talking to them and providing stimulating experiences "creates pathways in the brain for future associations," the study states.
Cognitive development begins very young, in the first year of life. Less than half of children living in poverty at 9 months old are ready for kindergarten at age 5, compared to 75 percent for children whose families are 185 percent above the poverty line. Experts are finding that these gaps can lead to lifetime achievement gaps and mobility problems.
The good news is that early childhood education — from a child's first year — can have striking improvements on a child's development. Longitudinal studies have shown that poor children placed in early childhood education programs from ages 1 to 5 diverged from control groups in cognitive ability as early as age 3. In follow-up studies at the age of 30, these same students were 42 percent more likely to be employed and four times more likely to have graduated from college.
"Starting at age 5 is almost too late," says Frances Campbell, a senior scientist at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, who helped conduct the study.
Aside from investments in pre-K education programs, such as New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio's program reported by Reuters, Brookings fellows recommend making the Earned Income Tax Credit more generous for families with children under the age of 5, and cash rewards programs to boost family's incomes, like New York's Family Rewards program that rewards things like school attendance and parental employment.
Authors warn that reductions in generosity in programs like the EITC can "be expected to reduce children's success."
"To the extent that money matters, we need money-based policies," writes Brookings fellow Richard Reeves. "But we also need to invest in services, especially parenting, pre-K and school reform, which should make money matter less."