For years, health experts have upheld the common belief that poverty has a profound effects on a child's life. For starters, there are the obvious economic disadvantages to being born poor. Children growing up in low-income families are more likely to attend schools that are poorly funded and to live in neighborhoods that are disadvantaged. Poor families have less time and money available for books and college tuition, let alone extras like museum trips. 

But dig deeper, and you'll see more long-lasting effects of poverty. According to a new study presented at the annual meeting for the American Association for the Advancement of Science, living in poverty can shape the neurobiology of a developing child "in powerful ways", affecting children's behavior, health and how well they do later in life.

The study, which focused on children who lived in poverty before the age of five, found that children growing up in a disadvantaged setting show disproportionate levels of reactivity to stress that shows up in hormone levels and neurological brain imaging. 

The study researchers studied data on more than 1,500 individuals born between 1968 and 1975, evaluating data from 40 years of demographic studies that measured family income during every year of childhood as well as educational attainment, career achievements, and crime and health statistics.  

The bottom line of all of this data is that there are "striking differences" in how the children's lives turned out, depending on whether they were poor or comfortably well-off before the age of six. The researchers described the outcome as the "biology of misfortune," for children who live in low-income families. They complete two fewer years of schooling and earn less than half as much as families with twice the level of income. As adults, children who grew up below the poverty line received more than $800 a year more in food stamps, were more than twice as likely to report poor overall health or high levels of psychological distress, and were more likely to be overweight as adults. Poor males are twice as likely to be arrested and poor women are six times more likely than their more affluent age-group peers to have a child out of wedlock.

So what does this mean for children who are growing up poor today? According to the National Center for Children in Poverty, nearly 13 million American children live in families with incomes below the federal poverty level, which is $20,000 a year for a family of four. And if the results of this study holds true, the prognosis for these kids isn't promising. Fortunately, there are a number of organizations out there working hard to change these statistics for the better.  

Groups such as Feeding America and End Childhood Hunger are tackling one of the fundamental problems of poverty ... the lack of food and nutritional information that keeps kids from growing properly and excelling in the classroom. Boys and Girls Clubs of America offer extracurricular programs that would not normally be available to children growing up in lower-income families, such as art classes and sports and fitness programs as well as programs that focus on leadership and life skills. And I just read about an initiative called Urban Opportunities that helps unemployed, homeless teens get into the job market with training and assistance.

Does your community offer any local initiatives to help children in poverty in America?

Photo: ana lee smith in nicaragua/Flickr

How poverty alters a child's brain
New study finds that poverty affects a child's brain in "powerful ways."