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Article: Child Brain Development, Household Poverty, and Economic Mobility: How Data from Connected Devices can Inform Interventional Policies



Author: Khahlil Louisy


Understanding the intricate dynamic between brain development in children, household poverty levels, and long-term economic outcomes has considerable implications for achieving societal objectives. Where we land on the economic distribution as adults is influenced by several factors affecting our development and output from an early age, including the household conditions and environment in which we are raised. Using data from digital or connected devices could provide health practitioners and policymakers with the insights needed at the most granular levels, to design microtargeted interventions to ameliorate the challenges impacting those outcomes.


The volumes of gray matter in the brain's temporal cortex and hippocampus regions in developing children have been shown to vary with household poverty levels. As these play an important role in memory-related processes including education performance and achievement, the implications are critical for long-term economic outcomes, including levels of household incomes. Most Americans – 72 percent – believe that it is possible for someone born into poverty to simply work hard enough and become wealthy. However, further studies show that this is not the case. A report from the Brookings Institute on the economic mobility of families across generations shows that 42 percent of children born into poverty end up in the bottom fifth of the economic distribution as adults and 23 percent rise to just the second fifth. Additionally, there is variation between subpopulation groups; 42 percent of Black Americans who lived more than half of their lives in poverty were poor by age 30, versus 25 percent of their white counterparts. In 2021, the U.S. Federal Interagency Forum on Child and Family Statistics reported that 15.3 percent of children under the age of 17 were in poverty, with higher rates for Black and Hispanic children – 27.3 percent and 22.4 percent, respectively.


Children living in poverty fare poorer on measures of academic ability, with as much as 20 percent of the gap in test scores explained by maturational lags in the frontal and temporal lobes, according to one study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, JAMA Pediatrics. In the same study, the researchers found that gray matter volumes of children living below 1.5 times the federal poverty level were three to four percentage points below the developmental norm. If brain and cognitive development impact education achievement, then it should not be surprising that children from poor households are worse off in income levels in the long run. A paper published by the Alliance for Excellent Education argues that “higher education attainment improves a student’s future income, occupational status, and social prestige, all of which contribute to improved individual health.”  


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