Childhood poverty and cognitive development

by Marc Wilson / 29 November, 2012
The younger you are, the greater the effect of poverty on cognitive development.
Childhood poverty and cognitive development


Psychology has its own version of the food pyramid. If you Google “Abraham Maslow”, you’ll find references to his “hierarchy of needs”, an idea that Maslow, a little ironically, developed while watching the behaviour of primates.

Maslow suggested we are motivated to satisfy particular sets of needs, and some of those needs are more immediate than others. So, when we’re not worrying about our most basic physical needs (sleeping, eating, shelter, etc), we can move up the hierarchy to other security and safety needs (such as having a job and owning our own shelter), go in search of love and belongingness, find sources of self-esteem to feel good about ourselves and (angelic chorus) ultimately achieve self-actualisation by becoming the best we can be. It’s not perfect, but it does make sense to think that if we don’t know where our next meal is coming from (or even if there will be a next meal), we probably aren’t fussed about whether others respect us as individuals.

Based on the hierarchy, it seems reasonable that living in poverty (in New Zealand that means earning less than 60% of the median household income) has consequences for what we do, and those consequences don’t just apply while we’re poor. For example, my friend Michael Allen and I (but mainly Mike) have shown that adults who experienced childhood food deprivation unsurprisingly behave differently towards food than people who didn’t. If you experienced food deprivation, then you’re more likely not only to hoard food and be overweight as an adult, but also to be more materialistic – you try to make up for your past deprivation in your present.

Interestingly, materialism – defined as such things as economic security and maintaining social order (all things relatively low in Maslow’s hierarchy) – has become less important, on average, to individuals since the world wars. In the West, we’ve increasingly had to worry less about shelter, clothing and food and have been able to turn our thoughts to promoting freedom of speech and participation, and protecting the environment. Indeed, this has been presented as part of the reason for the rise in Green politics.

There are also group differences – in New Zealand, lots of studies show that National Party supporters value economic security and social order more highly than, say, Labour supporters. In the US it’s Republicans, in England it’s the Tories, etc. But poverty has other consequences beyond how many cans of baked beans we have in our cupboards as adults.

Greg Duncan, a visiting professor from the US, says local and international research shows childhood poverty not only causes delays in cognitive development but also means you spend less time in education and end up working and earning less as an adult. And here’s something really important: the younger you are, the bigger poverty’s impact.

Why does being poor have these effects? Duncan, who is here on a Sir Frank Holmes fellowship, suggests a couple of traditional mechanisms: not being able to buy good stuff (good food, for example), and the negative impact of poverty on families that translates into bad outcomes for children. Duncan and colleagues propose a new effect, too: the impact stress from these things has on immunological development.

People who experience early childhood poverty are more likely to develop early onset arthritis and hypertension. It might cost a lot in the short term to buffer particularly young children from the effects of poverty but it will pay off in the future, as today’s kids grow up and have their own children. Baby steps.

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