Being Poor Affects Your Brain as Early as Kindergarten

When five-year-olds are handicapped by wealth, the whole country has a problem

Howard Country Library System/Flickr

Differences in wealth could affect the lives of American kids from the very first moment they enter a classroom, a study has found.

People with prestigious, lucrative jobs produce children who do better on math, reading, and memory tests, according to an analysis released today by the liberal Economic Policy Institute, which looked at parent and teacher assessments of 18,000 children who started kindergarten in 2010.

Beyond the straightforward aptitude tests, poor children also lagged behind rich classmates in such traits as persistence in finishing projects, eagerness to pick up new concepts, and self-control.

On most skills, from ease with calculations and sentences to attention levels, children did better with every step up the wealth ladder. Students in the middle of the socioeconomic status spectrum did worse than the ones at the top, but better than those slightly below them. 

“[The inequalities] represent bleak life prospects that portend serious problems for our society as a whole if we do not treat them as the moral and economic crisis they represent,” wrote Emma García, the report’s author.

García used data from the National Center for Education Statistics, which is sponsoring a long-term study of a nationally representative sample of kids, through their fifth-grade year. At the beginning of the 2010 school year, researchers asked students questions that got at their familiarity with letters, their number sense, and their ability to sort objects and remember long strings of information. They also asked teachers and parents to rate the kids’ desire to learn, ability to complete tasks, and focus.

Even after one controls for a bunch of factors that might make kids less likely to succeed—such as whether they read with their parents, or went to preschool—the poorer ones do worse. 

The list of cognitive areas in which rich children have an advantage over poor ones is long. It includes tests of math, reading, memory, approach to learning, eagerness to learn, self control, perseverance, memory, and attention. Poor children are also more likely to have a host of psychological issues, including anxiety, low self-esteem, and loneliness, and they are more likely to deal with those problems by getting in fights, disrupting activities, and acting impulsively. 

Black and Hispanic children are significantly handicapped, compared to white kids: They score worse on math, reading, memory, and sorting tests. After controlling for socioeconomic status, the differences shrink. This suggests that Black and Hispanic kids struggle from the start, but not because of skin color or ethnicity. It seems to have a lot more to do with the fact that almost half of black and Hispanic children live in poverty, meaning their household income is under 200 percent of the Census Bureau’s poverty line. Some 13 percent of white children and 17 percent of Asian kids are poor, by that definition. Overall, a quarter of the children in the study lived in poverty.

When some five-year-olds start their lives so far behind other five-year-olds when it comes to basic, life-altering skills, the whole country has a problem, the report suggested.

“In failing to address these education gaps, we lose enormous potential human capital,” García wrote. “We are shortchanging too many of our youth.”

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