3 Studies: Poverty Is Toxic to Childhood Learning

Tanya H. Lee

Poverty as a Childhood Disease

In May of last year, the New York Times published an article by pediatrician Dr. Perri Klass, “Poverty as a Childhood Disease.” She writes, “Recently, there has been a lot of focus on the idea of toxic stress, in which a young child’s body and brain may be damaged by too much exposure to so-called stress hormones, like cortisol and norepinephrine. When this level of stress is experienced at an early age, and without sufficient protection, it may actually reset the neurological and hormonal systems, permanently affecting children’s brains and even, we are learning, their genes.”

The Chronic Stress of Poverty: Toxic to Children

An article published January 12 as part of The Shriver Report, “The Chronic Stress of Poverty: Toxic to Children.” by Dr. Nadine Burke Harris, cited a CDC study of “adverse childhood experiences” (ACEs), including abuse, neglect, exposure to domestic violence, and household dysfunction such as parental substance use, mental illness, incarceration, or divorce. The study found that repeated stress and the resulting release of stress hormones damages youngsters' immune systems and their developing brains, particularly the pre-frontal cortex, which controls things like reasoning, impulse control, memory and planning.

Harris describes one mechanism that leads to damage: “The principal actor in the link between ACEs and disease is the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal, or HPA, axis governing the body’s ‘fight-or-flight’ response…. The HPA axis releases a surge of stress hormones, including adrenaline and cortisol, which creates a cascade of chemical reactions in the brain and body. When activated occasionally…this system bypasses our thinking brain, the prefrontal cortex, and activates the primitive reactions that can get us out of the way of a mortal threat. The problem comes when the system is overtaxed by repeated, intense, or chronic stress. That cascade of chemicals and reactions goes from saving one’s life to damaging one’s health. As it turns out, children are particularly vulnerable to the harmful effects of chronic stress and trauma and the resulting bath of stress hormones, because their young brains, nervous systems, and organs are just developing.”


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Dr. R's picture
Dr. R
Submitted by Dr. R on
"Poverty" is a term that must be defined to make one aware of it. If I live in a dirt home, with no running water and use an out-house for waste disposal; am I in poverty? If I choose to believe I live in simplistic terms how does that make my children know, before school age, that they live in "poverty?" How does their brain's physical development know that we live under a specified money income range? The term "poverty" is a trap, a means to addict those who do not live according to another's definition of wealth to demand for "free" items to bring one to some social standard. Instead this article should be emphasizing the need for all parents to address the nutritional needs of their children as well as the emotional/spiritual needs. Parents need to teach their children: which is what parents are: teachers of the future generations. Do not fall victim to the word-game: you are in poverty if you believe you are poor. But know that "poor" to those people means "less money." Not what your value is. And if you do subscribe to the european term of what "poverty" is then do something to live differently. If you believe that material goods and amounts of money are only a trap to ensnare one into someone else's version of what your life is about then make sure your children know they are loved, wanted and that you are the care of and the teacher of their lives: not some doctor who is making money selling other people's concepts and definitions.