It’s a grim reality that many are afraid to discuss, but it affects every facet of society, from daycare centers to corporate headquarters. On average, children from low-income families show signs of being far less intelligent than their financially privileged peers. Even in toddlerhood, the gaps are there, with poor children speaking and learning later than wealthy children. At all ages, there’s a tremendous correlation between low income and low IQ, and poor children score poorly on standardized tests compared to middle-class and upper-class kids. The problem is even apparent on brain scans: we can actually see signs of brain damage in kids from low-income families.
There are many hypotheses about the reason for poor children’s relative under-performance, often including a range of offensive stereotypes. Many wealthy people believe that poor people are inherently slower than wealthy people, or that low-income parents are lazy. The fact is that there are many components that cause poor children to, on average, be less intelligent than rich children– and until we address those differences, we have little chance at seeing real equality. Here are ten reasons that rich kids are often smarter than poor kids.
1. Lead Exposure.
We like to think of lead poisoning as a thing of the past, but millions of American children are still being poisoned by this brain-damaging metal every year. Low-income housing built before 1978 still frequently contains lead paint, which, when ingested by children, sets to work destroying brain matter in ways that can be irreversible. The link to poverty is so strong that most pediatricians screen for lead poisoning in low-income children, but not wealthy children.
2. Iron Deficiency.
Iron deficiency in early childhood causes not only short-term poor performance in school, but can also permanently damage the development of the brain and central nervous system. Children living in poverty have less access to nutritious food and are far more likely to suffer from anemia. And, since many are unable to get regular check-ups with a pediatrician, iron deficiency can easily go unnoticed until it’s already caused significant damage to the child’s brain.
3. Preterm Birth.
For reasons that are largely unknown, poor moms are much more likely to give birth to premies than rich moms. This could be because of factors like stress and poor nutrition. Premature babies are at a much higher risk than average of developing learning disabilities, because they’re born before their brains have finished the final important stages of development.
4. Lower Breastfeeding Rates.
Many studies have found that breastfeeding is important for normal brain development, which is bad news for low-income babies, who are much more likely to be formula-fed. Factors like cultural influences, unreasonably short maternity leave, and a higher rate of pregnancy complications all contribute to low breastfeeding rates among poor moms.
5. Fewer Bedtime Stories.
It’s not just folk wisdom: solid science backs the importance of reading to children from an early age. Children whose parents read to them every day have much higher rates of literacy, much better grades in school, and even improved behavior, compared to children whose parents don’t read to them. Low-income families are less likely to have access to reading material, making poor kids lag in school.
A whopping 1 in 5 children in the United States lives in a family that struggles to afford groceries. These children rely on free and reduced meals in school, but many eligible children still do without. Hunger not only makes children more likely to have brain-damaging deficiencies like anemia, but poor kids are also more likely to have trouble focusing and learning because of the physical stress of being hungry.
7. Lack of Education Access.
The cycle of poverty is a vicious one. On average, schools with many low-income students perform very poorly compared to schools with mostly wealthy students. Even when children who are naturally gifted end up in these schools, they’re often met with a sub-par curriculum to account for the high rate of learning disabilities and attention problems among their peers.
8. Genetic Factors.
Parents with learning disabilities are likely to end up living in poverty, since learning disabilities can be a barrier to higher education and can make it difficult (and sometimes even impossible) to establish a lucrative career. Learning disabilities are strongly correlated with genetics, so poor parents with disabilities are more likely to have special-needs children.
9. Lower Rates of Early Intervention.
Medical care is a luxury that many children in poverty do without. Even with the assistance of government-supported health care, regular well-child visits are out of the reach of many families. Poor parents are often working excessive hours (often for more than one job) and have little time to set aside for check-ups, or lack the transportation to get to and from children’s doctors’ appointments. This means that poor kids with learning disabilities are likely to be undiagnosed– and unhelped– than their more privileged peers.
10. Cultural Differences.
It’s a myth that poor parents willingly neglect their children’s education or simply don’t care about escaping the cycle of poverty. However, there are cultural differences between high-income families, which tend to view education as a top priority and college as an inevitability, and low-income families, who struggle to make ends meet and generally expect their children to eventually have low-wage jobs. Expectations have a tremendous effect on children’s goals and focuses, and can lead to an even broader educational gap.
Poor children are not inherently slower or less valuable than wealthy children, but it’s undeniable that poverty has very real, and very troublesome, effects on children’s cognitive and academic development. Once we’ve finally evened the playing field and enabled all children to have equal access to health, education, and early care, we may finally see educational equality among today’s children.