Monday, December 08, 2008

Poverty Makes You Stupid

That is  the most inflammatory possible way to put it.  Sorry to be insensitive, but we wanted your attention.  This matters.

A new study confirms years of data showing that the effects of poverty -- malnutrition, stress, toxins in the environment -- don't merely limit how much children learn, but seem to affect their brains in ways that keep them from learning.  Specifically, the new study

... finds that certain brain functions of some low-income 9- and 10-year-olds pale in comparison with those of wealthy children and that the difference is almost equivalent to the damage from a stroke.

"It is a similar pattern to what's seen in patients with strokes that have led to lesions in their prefrontal cortex," which controls higher-order thinking and problem solving, says lead researcher Mark Kishiyama, a cognitive psychologist at UC-Berkeley.

There are public-policy ramifications to this research that may not be immediately obvious.  Remember that America's primary export, for many years now, has been intellectual property:  patents, designs, software, entertainment.  We don't make our money selling things that a semi-literate assembly line worker can build by hand; we make our money on creativity and the management of ideas.

Therefore, as fewer citizens are capable of high-level, creative thinking, our society will become less prosperous.  And remember that, in recent years, the middle class has shriveled, meaning that while some wealthy children are raised in superlatively healthy and stimulating environments, many more are now raised in environments in which their brains are susceptible to damage than in the past several generations.  

So how do we plan for the future, if we want  -- or need -- a creative, problem-solving workforce?  Bailing out our troubled industries may serve a short-term social good, and funding education properly is certainly a solid long-term investment.  But even better schools will not be much help if most of the the kids they teach have already had the equivalent of a stroke.  Logically, then, before we fund industry or even education, we should do a better job of keeping children out of poverty.

All of which simply adds secular clothing to an idea that is, for Christians, a fundamental moral conviction: People should not be poor, and the goodness of a nation is measured by its ability to diminish poverty.

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