Smaller Bank Accounts, Smaller Brains: The Ravages of Inequality on America's Children

04/27/2015 10:08 am ET | Updated Jun 27, 2015

In this age of increasing inequality, the wealthy can purchase bigger homes, bigger cars, bigger vacations -- bigger just-about-everything. They also get bigger brains for their children.

Research just published in the journal Nature Neuroscience by Dr. Kimberly Noble of Columbia University and Dr. Elizabeth Sowell of Children's Hospital Los Angeles shows that children from low-income families have smaller brains and lower cognitive abilities. It is the largest such study ever undertaken. Neuroscientists used MRI scans to image the brains of 1,099 children, adolescents, and young adults.

Children in the lowest income bracket -- families making less than $25,000 -- had 6-percent less surface area to their brains than did children from families making more than $150,000. The differences in brain structure were primarily in areas associated with language and decision-making skills.

The study doesn't explain the cause of the cognitive differences. It simply measures and reports the disturbing correlations. However, the authors believe nutrition is a significant contributing factor, along with stress, levels of stimulation, education, and exposure to chemicals such as lead.

Of everything unfair about being poor in rich America, this is possibly the most unfair, unkindest cut of all. Not only do all kids not start with an equal chance, but the organ most necessary for even having a chance, one's brain, is not immune to the ravages of poverty.

Think of the lengths we go to today to ensure healthy outcomes for our kids. Parents fight to ensure that their child has every conceivable opportunity, large or small -- that she gets the right teacher, that he gets his fair share of time on the soccer field or volleyball team. But a 6-percent decrease in brain surface area among our children is accepted with little national conversation and even less outrage.

Why? Because poverty is intractable? Because the poor are politically unpopular? Because poverty is expensive and complex to solve? Really? Are we really prepared to compete globally, in a world that is growing scarier by the day, with millions of our children cognitively compromised?

If there is good news in this study, it is that this is a solvable problem. The researchers emphasized, "[O]ur results should in no way imply that a child's socioeconomic circumstances lead to an immutable trajectory of cognitive or brain development. ... [S]mall increases in family earnings in the first 2 years of a child's life may lead to notable differences in adult circumstances. ... [P]olicies reducing family poverty may have meaningful effects on children's brain functioning and cognitive development."

Share Our Strength's No Kid Hungry campaign, in collaboration with local partners around the country, has helped add more than 2 million kids to the school breakfast program over the past five years. Is there anything more exciting than knowing that we have a proven strategy to end childhood hunger that has changed the lives of millions of kids -- that actually impacts the size and shape of their brains -- and the opportunity now to scale it so that it reaches tens of millions?

In The Little Prince, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry wrote, "What is essential is invisible to the eye." This report in Nature Neuroscience makes visible what was once invisible to us. In so doing it enables us to bear witness to what is essential for all of our children.