The Long Reach of Early Childhood Poverty

Poverty and its attendant stressors have the potential to shape the neurobiology of the developing child in powerful ways. Poverty in early childhood can reduce material investments in children’s learning and undermine the development of strong parent-child bonds. Newly available data linking family economic conditions throughout childhood to adult attainments demonstrate that individuals who were poor between conception and school entry work and earn less and are at higher risk for obesity three decades later. Poverty has also been linked to children’s behavior problems, although causal effects are less clear. The strongest evidence is that deep and enduring poverty in early childhood reduces school achievement, and several possible mechanisms have been suggested. With respect to health, research shows that susceptibility to a range of chronic diseases, presyndromal psychopathology, and developmental disorders is concentrated among children who have the following: compromised early environments, such as those found in impoverished families and communities; experiences of subordination and social marginality; and a neurobiological sensitivity to social context operating at the levels of behavior, neural circuitry, and gene expression. Taken together, these interactive risk factors delineate an experience-driven biology of disadvantage that places many children on developmental trajectories toward lifelong patterns of ill health and unrealized potential.

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