Growing up in poverty exposes children to greater levels of stress, which can lead to psychological problems later in life, a new study suggests. Researchers at Cornell University reported that kids who grow up poor are more likely to have reduced short-term spatial memory. The study also reported that such kids seem to be more prone to antisocial and aggressive behavior, such as bullying.
Poor children are also more likely than kids from middle-income homes to feel powerless, the study authors suggested. Of course, the findings don’t mean that all children growing up in poverty will have these problems, only that the risk is higher, the researchers said. “What this means is, if you’re born poor, you’re on a trajectory to have more of these kinds of psychological problems,” study author Gary Evans, a professor of environmental and developmental psychology, said in a university news release.
The researchers said the negative psychological effects of growing up in poverty may stem from stress. “With poverty, you’re exposed to lots of stress. Everybody has stress, but low-income families, low-income children, have a lot more of it,” Evans said. “And the parents are also under a lot of stress. So, for kids, there is a cumulative risk exposure.”
For the study, the researchers monitored 341 children and young adults for 15 years. The participants were evaluated at four intervals: age 9, 13, 17 and 24. The young people’s short-term spatial memory was tested by asking the older participants to correctly repeat a series of complex sequences of lights and sounds by pressing four colored pads in a certain order.
Those who grew up in poverty were not able to perform this task as well as those from middle-income backgrounds. “This is an important result because the ability to retain information in short-term memory is fundamental to a host of basic cognitive skills, including language and achievement,” the study authors wrote.