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Lift Kids Out of Poverty, Protect Their Brains

UBC researcher adds to growing data on physical cost of being young and poor.

Tom Sandborn 6 Jan

Tom Sandborn is a contributing editor to The Tyee with a focus on health policy and labour issues. He welcomes feedback and story tips at [email protected].

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Stress can alter pre-frontal cortex: study

Growing up in poverty can physically harm a child's brain development, suggests a new study co-conducted by a University of British Columbia researcher.

Add that to a growing stack of findings that child advocates are using to argue the B.C. government needs to do more to tackle child poverty in a province that trails the rest of Canada in that category.

UBC pediatrician Tom Boyce worked with colleagues at the University of California and Stanford to measure how differences in a child's family socioeconomic status determine differences in neurological functioning in the pre-frontal cortex -- the part of the brain associated with executive functions and reasoning.

Their resulting study, to be published in MIT's Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, found that poorer children's pre-frontal cortexes were more likely to exhibit signs of damage or "altered" functioning identified with shortened attention spans and other learning problems.

Child and youth advocates say the new research is consistent with other studies finding that poverty sickens kids and impairs their development.

A study recently released by the Canadian Institute for Health Information reveals that low income Canadians are at elevated risk for mental health hospitalization, diabetes and childhood asthma.

Not about blaming parents

"There is already a lot of research that shows that the lives of children who grow up in poverty are not as good as those who grow up in better circumstances -- with more morbidity, behavioral disorders and earlier deaths. Our study shows that pre-frontal functioning is altered in low socioeconomic status children," Boyce told The Tyee in a recent phone interview.

Dr. Boyce's new research compares the EEG readings taken from two groups of San Francisco Bay Area children as they performed an experimental task. (The Tyee was able to obtain a pre-publication uncorrected proof of the study.) The children from homes with a mean average annual family income of $27,000, with parents who had not completed college (designated as low socioeconomic status) were compared with a group of children from homes with a mean average annual family income of $96,000 and parents who had completed college or post graduate degrees, who were designated as high socioeconomic status.

On key measures, the children from poor homes showed reductions in prefrontal-dependent electrophysiological measures of attention compared to those for kids who grew up in wealthy homes. The pattern of reduced attention seen in the poorer children is similar to that seen in patients with lateral prefrontal cortex damage.

Dr. Boyce emphasized to The Tyee that he and his fellow researchers were concerned that their findings not be used to "blame the victim" by suggesting that the differences in poor children's brain functioning were the fault of their parents. There are many factors associated to growing up in poverty that may contribute to the measured differences, he said, including greater levels of stress and lack of access to cognitively stimulating materials and experiences, factors that are very hard for poor parents to correct without changes in their own economic conditions and life circumstances.

Boyce said his research leads him to support the policy changes advocated by BC's First Call organization, the group that recently publicly criticized the province's government for failing, over five years' time, to lift B.C. out of its status as Canada's worst province for child poverty.

"Kids in poverty live with more stress. That comes with financial adversity. Income redistribution that benefits kids has documented efficacy," Boyce said.

'More kids in poverty, less services'

Joyce Preston, who served the B.C. legislature as its child youth and family advocate from 1995-2001, told The Tyee that the province had gone backwards in recent years.

"We're seeing more kids in poverty and less service for children and families," Preston said. "B.C. is failing our most vulnerable residents. Dr. Boyce's research reinforces what we know from other investigators like J. Fraser Mustard and Clyde Hertzman.

Kids need stimulation and security. The more they get, the more synapses will develop."

Adrienne Montani, First Call's provincial co-coordinator, who has also served as chair of the Vancouver School Board and Child and Youth Advocate for Vancouver, says that the province should address child poverty more effectively not only because it is the right thing to do, but because it makes economic sense.

"What kind of society allows avoidable harm to come to children? Besides, it is cheaper to invest in growing healthy kids and functional adults than it is to pay for services later for those who are damaged," she told The Tyee.

'Demands that we take steps': Tupel-Lafond

B.C.'s representative for children and youth, Ellen Turpel-Lafond, told The Tyee that she supports the set of policy reforms being pushed by First Call, but thinks that even more action by B.C.'s government is necessary.

"The Boyce research is another piece of evidence that factors beyond the control of parents can have big impacts on child development. I am particularly impressed with other research I have seen that shows high levels of the stress chemical cortisol in the children of traumatized mothers. It doesn't mean every child in poverty will fail to find educational success, but it does demand that we take steps to improve the environment in which children grow up and see children have access to good resources."

The First Call proposals don't go far enough, though, in Turpel-Lafond's view.

"I want to see a provincial plan on child poverty, with goals and targets and with a way of determining whether we are making any progress. We don't yet have that plan. Evaluation is very important. The province has some good programs, but the uptake on them is limited. We need to find ways to identify and remove the barriers that keep vulnerable young mothers from accessing programs."

An Environics poll taken this fall suggests that a majority of Canadians would support the kind of plan that Turpel-Lafond advocates.

Mismeasurement: the conservative critique

Conservatives have countered calls for such policy changes by saying child poverty is being mismeasured in B.C. and across Canada. The right-leaning Fraser Institute has issued a number of critical papers on this topic, most relying on the work of Chris Sarlo, professor of economics at Nipissing University at North Bay, Ontario. Sarlo argues that Statistics Canada's Low Income Cut Off (LICO) figures are not a true measure of poverty because they identify only comparative poverty, and not real deprivation. He has written that real poverty, therefore, is much rarer in Canada than anti-poverty advocates claim.

First Call's Montani calls the Fraser Insitute's critique "uninformed criticism."

"It is true that LICO is a relative, not an absolute measure, but it legitimately identifies real poverty and inequality. Research shows that the gap, the inequality is one of the most harmful things. Social cohesion studies show you get more damage when there is a big gap between the rich and the poor and people in poverty feel out of control of their lives, which adds to their stress. Inequality kills, and it makes you sick along the way."

The Tyee sought comment from Tom Christensen, minister of Children and Family Development. His media spokespeople declined to comment. Attempts to reach Premier Campbell met with no success. A media spokesperson with Rich Coleman's Ministry of Housing and Social Development said in an e-mail:

"B.C. is moving people out of low-income situations almost three times faster than the national average from 2002 to 2006 -- declining by 3% and accounting for over 50 per cent of the national reduction. Stats Canada numbers show that the number of children in a low income family in 2006 was lower than in 2003 and 2004 (159,000 to 133,000 -- a 15 per cent reduction)."

This contrasts with what Turpel-Lafond, representative on children and youth, told The Tyee. She said child poverty has gone up in B.C. each year, with a one per cent increase last year.

First Call's Montani dismissed the numbers offered by Minister Coleman's office. So did Seth Klein, B.C. director of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives and co-author of "A Poverty Reduction Plan for BC."

"[Coleman] can say that B.C. has had a higher rate of reducing child poverty, as he does, comparing 2006 to 2003 and 2004, but that doesn't recognize that B.C.'s rate of child poverty was higher than Canada's in all those years. Because we started from a higher rate, our rate of reduction is higher, but in 2006, B.C. child poverty rates were over 16 per cent and national rates were around 11 per cent. The B.C. rate for child poverty in 2006 is higher than in 2005 and higher than it was in 2001 when the Liberals came to power."

Dr. Penny Parry, a psychologist who served as Vancouver's child and youth advocate from 1992 until 1996, called for implementation of all of the First Call policy reforms, saying, "We need to have our attention re-focused on supporting families, and providing the conditions that allow parents reduced stress and more time with their kids."

Last month, UNICEF, the United Nations Children's Fund, issued a report card rating 25 developed countries on how well they have achieved 10 basic benchmarks for quality child care. Canada ranks at the bottom of the list together with Ireland, having only accomplished one of the 10 desirable goals.

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