The Economic, Neurobiological, and Behavioral Implications of Poverty.
Do you believe that economic success is just a matter of having a good work ethic and strong personal motivation? Most people do. But in reality this is a perfect example of the Fundamental Attribution Error and the Self Serving Bias.
Attribution Error occurs when we negatively judge the unfortunate circumstances of others as being a reflection of their character traits rather than as a result of environmental circumstances (e.g., growing up in poverty). What is even more interesting is that when we mess up, we tend to blame it on environmental factors rather than accepting personal responsibility. When we are successful however, we take credit for the outcome assigning credit to internal personal attributes and devaluing environmental contributors. This latter error is the Self Serving Bias.
This erroneous thinking is universal, automatic, and it is what drives a wedge between people on different points of the socio-economic spectrum. If you believe that poor people are impoverished simply because they are lazy free-loaders, you are likely a victim of this thinking error. The same is true if you believe that your success is completely of your own doing.
I have written numerous articles on the impact of poverty on early childhood development (i.e., The Effects of Low SES on Brain Development) and the bottom line is that economic deprivation weakens the social and neurobiological foundation of children in ways that have life-long implications. In this post I will summarize a review article by Knudsen, Heckman, Cameron, and Shonkoff entitiled: Economic, Neurobiological, and Behavioral Perspectives on Building America’s Future Workforce. This 2006 article published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences provides an excellent review of the research across many fields including developmental psychology, neuroscience, and economics. It highlights the core concepts that converge with regard to the fact that the quality of early childhood environment is a strong predictor of adult productivity. The authors point to the evidence that robustly supports the following notions:
- Genes and environment play out in an interdependent manner. Knudsen et al., (2006) noted that “… the activation of neural circuits by experience also can cause dramatic changes in the genes that are expressed (“turned on”) in specific circuits (58-60). The protein products of these genes can have far reaching effects on the chemistry of neurons and, therefore, on their excitability and architecture.” Adverse experiences can and do fundamentally alter one’s temperament and capacity to learn throughout life.
- Essential cognitive skills are built in a hierarchical manner, whereby fundamental skills are laid down in early childhood and these foundational neural pathways serve as a basis upon which important higher level skills are built.
- Cognitive, linguistic, social, and emotional competencies are interdependent – all nascent in early childhood, when adverse environmental perturbations reek havoc on, and across, each of these fundamental skill sets.
- There are crucial and time-sensitive windows of opportunity for building these fundamental competencies. Should one fail to develop these core skills during this crucial early developmental stage, it becomes increasingly unlikely that later remediation will approximate the potential one had, if those skills were developed on schedule. A cogent analogy here is learning a new language – it is far easier to learn a new language early in development when the language acquisition window is open, than it is later in life when this window is nearly closed.
In my last two posts (Halting the Negative Feedback Loop of Poverty: Early Intervention is the Key and Poverty Preventing Preschool Programs: Fade-Out, Grit, and the Rich get Richer) I discussed two successful early intervention programs (e.g., Perry Preschool Program & Abecedarian Project) that demonstrated positive long-term benefits with regard to numerous important social and cognitive skills. Knudsen, et al, (2006) noted:
“At the oldest ages tested (Perry, 40 yrs; Abecedarian, 21 yrs), individuals scored higher on achievement tests, reached higher levels of education, required less special education, earned higher wages, were more likely to own a home, and were less likely to go on welfare or be incarcerated than individuals from the control groups.”
These findings converge with research on animal analogues investigating the neurodevelopmental impact of early stimulation versus deprivation across species. Knudsen et al., (2006) point out that:
- There are indeed cross species negative neurodevelopmental consequences associated with adverse early developmental perturbations.
- There clearly are time sensitive windows during which failure to develop crucial skills have life-long consequences. Neural plasticity decreases with age.
- However, there are time sensitive windows of opportunity during which quality programs and therapies can reverse the consequences of adverse environmental circumstances (i.e., poverty, stress, violence).
Early learning clearly shapes the architecture of the brain. Appropriate early stimulation fosters neural development, while conversely, impoverished environments diminish adaptive neural stimulation and thus hinders neural development. Timing is everything it seems. Although we learn throughout our lifespan, our capacity to learn is built upon a foundation that can be strengthened or impaired by early environmental experiences. It is very difficult to make up for lost time later in life – much as it is difficult to build a stable building on an inadequate foundation. Stimulating environments during these crucial early neurodevelopment periods are far more efficient than remediation after the fact. These realities provide further justification for universally available evidence based early preschool services for children at the lower end of the socio-economic spectrum. Proactive stimulation fosters stronger and more productive citizens – yet, we continue to respond in a reactive manner with remedial and/or punitive measures that miss the mark. The necessary proactive response is clear.
Knudsen, E. I., Heckman, J. J., Cameron, J. L., and Shonkoff, J. P. (2006). Economic, neurobiological, and behavioral perspectives on building America’s future workforce. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. v. 103, n. 27. 10155-10162.