It is a well-documented fact that children from low-income households are significantly less likely to be successful than their middle and upper class counterparts. Studies have repeatedly shown a link between poverty and education. Family income is one of the strongest predictors available for measuring success, both in the classroom and later in life.
With fewer resources and less of a focus on education at home, children growing up in poverty are behind from the very beginning. Household stresses from living in poverty build up in the child, making it extremely difficult to concentrate on education.
Even if they are going to school regularly, children in poverty often fail to get an adequate education due to the stress of destitution. Since they have such a difficult time in the classroom, the kids fall into the poverty trap, in which their lack of education prevents any rise on the social ladder.
Until recently, it was unclear exactly what biological process made that the case. However, recent studies have pointed towards working memory as the key psychological factor linking poverty and education, specifically in academic achievement.
Working Memory Links Poverty and Education
Working memory is a “temporary storage mechanism” that lets us hold information and facts in our head for short-term usage and manipulation. The process of using working memory is central for reading, problem-solving and learning new languages.
A number of studies have shown that children with the best working memories also tend to have the highest test scores and the best grades. Children in poverty consistently have a less developed working memory than those above the poverty line.
With a dearth of educational resources in poor countries, an underdeveloped working memory often goes unnoticed and untreated.
This means that in addition to dealing with stress at home, children in poverty also have trouble remembering basic facts and instructions at school. Unable to stay on task, and struggling to keep up, their failure at school only adds to their stress level.
What’s more, a study published in the Development Science journal showed that, “Stress in early childhood negatively affects a child’s working memory in adulthood.”
The problems for children in poverty become even bigger problems in their adult lives. While a poor working memory for a child only means bad grades, it spells unemployment and crushing poverty for an adult.
The answer must come well before adulthood. With properly trained educators, an underdeveloped working memory can be easily spotted and rectified before it becomes a larger problem.
The lack of a proper education makes up a major part of the poverty trap — a phenomenon in which people living in poverty cannot rise up due to scarce resources, depression, lack of opportunity and other issues. The poverty trap can start before the child ever enters the classroom, and it has long-term psychological consequences.
Even from early childhood, poverty can create both a biological obstacle and an inescapable trap that collectively reduces the likelihood for academic and monetary success.
– Sam Hillestad
Sources: PsyBlog, PNAS