A child in poverty may have little access to books. Food can be hard to come by, and much of it is likely to be processed, since fresh fruits and vegetables are too expensive or often unavailable. Her neighborhood may be unsafe to play in, so she spends hours indoors, disconnected from nature and play. Her school may be underperforming for a variety of reasons, including staffing retention issues and lack of funding. Adding another layer of complexity and urgency to the issue of poverty in our country, a new study from the Journal of the American Medical Association reveals that compared to affluent children, children in poverty have less gray matter, the brain tissue that digests information.

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Researchers examined the MRIs of otherwise healthy children ages 4-22 and found that as a family sinks deeper below the poverty line, the children’s brains have less gray matter. Seth Pollack, a co-author of the study, posits that poverty has an effect as toxic on the brain as eating lead paint, and he believes that this “lost” gray matter in the brain could account for up to 20% of the achievement gap, or the difference in test scores between children in disparate socioeconomic situations. Although the study did not set out to determine which specific element of poverty was responsible for this lack of gray matter development, the researchers pointed to the importance of providing additional resources to impoverished families (especially those below 150% of the federal poverty level) in hopes of equalizing the opportunities and abilities of these young people.

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