Unequal Stress: How Poverty Is Toxic for Children’s Brains

Scientists, policy experts, and advocates share strategies to protect children

May 10, 2016

No one likes to be stressed, but not all stress is equal. There is mounting evidence that children who grow up poor are more likely to be subjected to stresses like neglect and hunger that act like toxins and hijack the developing brain. Scientists, policy experts, and advocates reviewed the latest research and exchanged strategies to protect children at “Poverty, the Brain, and Mental Health,” a symposium co-presented by the Mailman School, Partnership with Children, and the American Museum of Natural History. (Watch full video from the event below.)

The event was hosted by the Museum and moderated by Rob DeSalle, curator for the Museum's Division of Invertebrate Zoology who noted that the institution, while better known for its dinosaurs, has a long involvement in public health, including one of the first public health departments at a natural history museum and current exhibitions on disease prevention and the microbiome. DeSalle quoted Margaret Mead, the influential anthropologist and curator at the Museum until her death in 1976, who said, “The solution to adult problems tomorrow depends on large measure upon how our children grow up today.”


In opening remarks, New York City Health Commissioner Mary Bassett outlined the issue, citing researchers who over the last two decades have changed the way stress is understood. “We have moved beyond thinking about it as a feeling and begun to think of it as a profound experience that affects our whole body,” she said. “We know families, children, and whole neighborhoods that are experiencing protracted, concentrated disadvantage are disproportionately burdened by stressors.”

In small doses, stress is normal, even helpful. But repeated exposures to adverse childhood experiences, or ACEs, remake the architecture of a child’s developing brain, particularly in the prefrontal cortex, which is in charge of executive function and differentiating between good and bad, and the hippocampus, which handles memories and learning.   

Virginia Rauh, a professor of Population and Family Health, described her research with colleagues at the Columbia Center for Children’s Environmental Health that shows growing up in a poor home or neighborhood can give rise to toxic stress, which is a response to adverse experiences. Toxic stress can interact with other toxins like air pollution with consequences including cognitive deficits and emotional disorders, which in turn, help perpetuate disadvantage.

Buffer the Stress

Thankfully those unwelcome outcomes aren’t written in stone. Even children with multiple ACEs—examples include domestic violence or having an incarcerated parent—can be put back on a course to healthy development. “A child exposed to these is not predetermined to have a difficult life and should never be treated as such,” said Commissioner Bassett.

Indeed research shows that given the proper support children can recover from toxic stress. Responsive parenting and high-quality childcare and learning environments each act to buffer against adverse experiences. “The brain is a very adaptable organ,” Rauh explained.

To foster what it calls “safe learning environments,” the nonprofit Partnership with Children works within 40 New York City schools to provide trauma-informed counseling for children and families living with toxic stress. The organization also partners with parents to encourage them to reinforce its work at home. “The antidote to toxic stress—nurturing relationships and consistent feelings of safety—works if it’s in all the child’s environments,” said Executive Director Margaret Crotty.

Parents Need Help Too  

Sadly, low-income parents rarely see the kind of support offered by Partnership with Children. Renée Wilson-Simmons, director of the National Center for Children in Poverty (NCCP) at the Mailman School, offered a reason why, describing the wrongheaded belief in the United States that poor children deserve help but parents should be held responsible for their condition because they haven’t worked hard enough. “That flies in the face of research and common sense,” she said. “Children do better when families do better.”

Personal experience also underlies Wilson-Simmons' views on the issue. “It’s growing up in poverty that propelled me to do the work I’m doing,” she said. “We understood how we were viewed by people—lazy, culturally deficient, criminally inclined, financially inept, reproductively prodigious.”

In fact, there is evidence that children aren’t only affected by stress they experience directly, but by traumas experienced by their parents and grandparents.

Researchers like Frances Champagne, associate professor of Psychology at Columbia, have found evidence that these traumas are passed from parent to child, both through social interactions and inscribed on the epigenome. “This multigenerational perspective may be important when we’re thinking about how to intervene,” said Champagne.

Along these lines, NCCP is working with the City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene on two pilot projects—Circle of Security and Project LAUNCH (Linking Actions for Unmet Needs in Children’s Health)—to help parents and other caregivers attend to the social and emotional needs of their children. “We want to promote the healthy development of children and their parents,” said Wilson-Simmons.

The Bottom Line

Currently more than one in five children lives below the federal poverty level—$23,550 for a family of four. In New York City, the percentage is even greater.  Meanwhile research shows that, on average, families need an income about twice that level to cover basic expenses. Perhaps the most obvious ways to alleviate the toxic consequences of poverty-related stress is by helping families be more financially secure, such as through a living wage, affordable housing, or targeted help with education and nutrition. According to Commissioner Bassett and Wilson-Simmons, programs like universal Pre-K in New York give children a leg-up on learning while reducing the cost of childcare. Likewise, food stamps alleviate hunger while freeing up funds for other purposes.

“Our vision is of an America where all families are economically secure, strong, and nurturing so that all children can be supported to thrive and grow into healthy adults,” said Wilson-Simmons.

Watch the video: