A Different Kind of Gap: Poverty, Income, and Health

You are walking to work Tuesday morning, and as you pass a bustling intersection, you see a Mercedes Benz parked in front of a three-story clothing department store. You pass the intersection and can’t help but notice, the next street down is a community health center, a major player in providing healthcare to the underserved, with a short line of families and children waiting to go in. You find the juxtaposition of the scene to be intriguing for a moment, but your mind soon wanders.

These moments are something most individuals have witnessed in urban, suburban, or rural America without a second thought, especially when income inequality has been growing between upper-income and lower-income sectors of society for years. Such large wealth gaps may not initially seem to have a strict effect on health other than apparent gaps in medical care--however, socioeconomic differences and poverty can affect the behavior of individuals and the decisions they make. More specifically, poverty can have very real effects on the cognitive functioning and development of young children.

Our body generates the “fight or flight” response when we live through what our mind identifies as threatening situations. Our heart rate increases, we start working up a sweat, and our breathing gets faster. When people live under poverty, this stress response is ongoing, affecting the allocation of mental resources for what is important in the moment and what isn’t a priority, ultimately affecting how people think, their choices, and the outcomes of those choices.

For children’s developing brains, the response can be even more harmful. For instance, children living in poverty were correlated with having a smaller hippocampus region, which plays an important role in memory formation. One study even noted how certain brain regions specific to language and executive functioning, such as problem-solving or controlling emotions, were more prominent for children of higher-income backgrounds than lower-income backgrounds. With 21% of American children living in poverty, such forthcoming scientific evidence matters in how we target such problems.

Despite the growing body of research detailing the stark differences in the brains of children with different income backgrounds, there is promise for the future. More healthcare professionals, economists, and researchers are studying how poverty’s harmful effects on the brain can be reversed or mediated. Some scientists are even tackling the issue head on, by looking at how boosts in income can potentially improve children’s brain development. If we want to address poverty and income inequality, policymakers should not only pay attention to the income gap, but also its impact on the health of our nation’s children.