What if children in this country were treated as precious commodities, the way the desert treats rain drops? What if each infant were given sufficient nurturing – healthy meals, a safe environment and a decent education? What would our society look like in the future? We’ll never know if we continue to tolerate raising so many of our young in abject poverty.
Giving every child the basics is neither difficult nor expensive. As authors John Gabrieli and Silvia Bunge explain, “even modest financial assurance could make a big difference.” (“The Stamp of Poverty,” by John Gabrieli and Silvia Bunge, Scientific American Mind, Jan/Feb. 2017 pg. 60.) Sleep, nutrition, structured group play and learning how to follow rules “can boost executive function within 10 weeks,” (Ibid pg. 81)
Recent brain studies show surprising differences between children reared in affluence and those who are not. MRI studies indicate a strong correlation between poverty and a thinning of the cortex in the young. “…people with higher scores in cognitive and achievements tests had greater cortical volumes in the frontal and temporal lobes—and…poorer children had less cortical gray matter.” (Ibid pg. 58.) While scientists are unwilling to conclude poverty causes the differences in gray matter, they do admit a strong correlation. One explanation might be the brains of children living below the poverty line begin to prune away gray matter to conserve energy for survival functions. Maintaining gray matter longer allows the brain greater flexibility as it develops. (Ibid pg. 58).
Economic background alone isn’t the full picture, of course. Some children raised in poverty become high achievers. But environment does play a part, which suggests enriching children’s lives should be of primary importance to this nation. Exposing young minds to stimulating experiences before the age of four provides the greatest overall benefit. What’s more, doing so requires minimum investments: food, safety, opportunity to interact with others and toys.
Giving a pregnant woman the means to feed and care for her unborn child is an effective way to prevent the effects of economic inequality. Certainly, it is cheaper than maintaining mental health programs, building homeless shelters or sending people off to prison. If we’d take the same chance on our children that we do when we buy a lottery ticket, we’d make the nation richer. Unfortunately, too many in Congress imagine the problem isn’t with poverty but with Planned Parenthood.
(Originally published 12/16/17)