Capitalism and Child Development

The topic of income inequality has finally come to the fore, with pundits, policy-makers, and even plutocrats sounding the alarm. But why all the fuss? Isn’t a little inequality necessary to motivate that great American work ethic and keep the engine of capitalism churning?

Seems the income inequality we’re dealing with now is the worst its been since 1928, right before the Great Depression. And I seem to remember hearing something in school about that not being such a great time for us as a nation. Anyway, the belief that a little inequality can be the incentive necessary for someone to better themselves has permeated the national consciousness for quite some time, and has served as a rationalization for continuing policies that further polarize the very rich and the very poor in this county. But again, so what? If you pay attention in school, study hard, and apply yourself, can’t you just rise above it?

Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. Apparently, the part of the brain responsible for advanced thinking, problem-solving, judgment and impulse control – your prefrontal cortex – can get pretty messed up if you’re a child growing up in poverty. Just like a lack of adequate nutrition or exposure to toxins can stunt your physical growth as a child, exposure to the toxic and chronic stress of poverty can stunt your brain’s growth. And scientists seem to have isolated where this stunting is most likely to take place.

In 2008, a group of scientists at the National Institute of Health compared the brain scans of kids growing up wealthy to kids growing up in poverty, and the results they found were nothing short of alarming. The kids who were low socioeconomic status had prefrontal cortexes that resembled those of adult stroke victims. That makes it hard to problem solve, control your emotions and behaviors, communicate clearly, or recall memories needed for meaningful learning. So poor kids, if they’ve been poor for a while, have a “brain-disadvantage” as compared to rich kids.

If only they’d apply themselves.

The double-whammy is that poor kids are at greater risk to suffer prolonged abuse and neglect at the hands of their caregivers as well. It’s not that their parents don’t love them, it’s just that when you pile the stresses of parenting on top of the stresses of trying to survive poverty, it puts parents in constant survival mode (actually affecting their brains), making it more likely that they will resort to harsh parenting, abuse, or end up not being able to provide what their children need (neglect). Almost 700,000 American children are declared abused and neglected each year, but those are only the ones that get reported and investigated. Millions more suffer quietly out of reach of the child welfare system.

All that neglect and abuse can take its toll on a developing brain. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in their landmark Adverse Childhood Experiences study, concluded that the more abuse and neglect a person was exposed to growing up, the more risk they were at for a whole host of disorders and diseases, including compromised neural development, degraded social development, addiction, depression, and mental illness. And those with the most childhood adversity were at the highest risk for non-psychological damage as well. Even diseases like heart disease, diabetes, and cancer were more prevalent in the population that was exposed to the most trauma. Those with the most abuse and neglect in childhood were likely to die an average of 20 years sooner than the rest of us.

This is profound. Growing up low socioeconomic status greatly increases the occurrence of events that, without proper interventions, can result in a significant increase in the likelihood that an individual will develop at least one of the top ten causes of death in the United States. Throw that on top of a shrunken prefrontal cortex, and it becomes obvious that some kids are set up for a lifetime of illness and lost potential while others are set up for scholarships, lots of support, and to inherit a crap load of money to pass on to their own kids when they grow up.

So the cycle continues. Poverty begets poverty, wealth begets wealth. The playing field can never be even when our brains and bodies are so divergent in their health and capacity for growth.

There is good news though. The same quality of the brain that makes it so receptive to a toxic environment also makes it receptive to a healthy one. Healing can happen- it’s called neuroplasticity. Good work is currently being done around how to provide a hyper-stimulating learning environment to deprived brains to get them on the track of growth and learning again. But that’s not enough. Not only will interventions like this take time, training, and financial resources to become a reality, they ultimately don’t change the underlying causes of poverty on a grand scale. In effect, they may lessen the sting for some of those affected.

Without a permanent shift in the way we distribute resources and access to opportunity in this society, we will continue to produce children whose brains are compromised and unable to learn and grow in the way they were intended to. We need to understand that our current economic system, based on an uneven distribution of resources, lies at the root cause of much of what holds so many of us back. This is not hyperbole, this is science. Before we are able to create meaningful change that positively impacts the development of all children growing up in this society, we need to name the problem and understand its consequences. Capitalism, a system based on inequality, is toxic to children, families, and communities, and is at the root cause of many of the diseases and disorders that affect the quality of life for so many millions of Americans.

Our current socioeconomic system, on some very basic levels, isn’t meeting the needs of a vast portion of society, and unchecked is actually causing lifelong harm. What must we do to mitigate the effects of years of inequality? Naming the problem and understanding the science behind it brings us to the following questions: What would a world look like that met those needs? And how do we construct a society that is based on providing the basic needs for all children, so that all children can flourish?

Posted on by anthonyzenkus Posted in Uncategorized

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