World Children’s Day: Early Moments Matter (Especially for the Brain)

Nearly 385 million children around the world live in “extreme poverty” according to a recent joint World Bank-UNICEF study. Of all the people in the world living in these conditions, half of them are children. There is a children somewhere struggling to survive on less than US$1.90 a day: seeking access to nutrition, clean water, sanitary conditions, shelter, and medical help.

As individuals with significantly more privilege and opportunity, we may be able to help these young individuals and propose solutions to the adversities that they face. Brain World recently focused on how poverty affects the size of a child’s brain. Research serves to reiterate the idea that poverty is global malady that has far-reaching consequences. Imagine the world we could create if every child had access to resources that allowed them to thrive.

Children living below the poverty line respond poorly to the education that they receive, falling even more behind later in life. Seth Pollak of the University of Wisconsin conducted a study to substantiate this argument and take it further by bringing in data from different economic classes to see whether “money” directly affected brain growth. Through his analysis, he concluded that money does not necessarily mean a better brain for children since there was not an apparent difference between a “low income” brain and a “middle class” brain.

However, as he started studying brains affected by poverty, he saw a significant difference in the gray matter up to 8 to 10 percent between children who lived in poverty — and those who did not. Why does this matter so much? Consider that the damage done to the brain may mean the loss of a child’s potential.

As researchers continue to investigate poverty’s fallout effect, it becomes more evident for the world to take immediate action. Complacency is definitely not a solution anymore, and that is why the United Nations General Assembly gathered to make some important decisions, called the Sustainable Development Goals (also known as the SDGs). This began in 2000 when world leaders decided to designate eight Millennial Development Goals (MDGs) for the next 15 years to eradicate poverty, inequality, and many other entrenched problems of human history.

Unfortunately, much like the “Back to the Future” film franchise’s failure to predict 2015 to be the year of flying cars, the U.N. was not able to pinpoint the year when these global problems would significantly diminish. After reviewing the progress of the MDGs, the U.N. came back with a stronger plan with the SDGs in 2015 — just a few days before the International Day of Eradication of Poverty Conference. Brain World was in attendance, wondering whether at the core of achieving these goals was mainly due to our lateness in responding.

Yes, we are behind schedule, but does that mean we cannot and should not do anything? While we might want the best for our own children, we tend to miss the bigger picture. Some days, it does not even come to our attention that the socio-economic struggles that poverty entails can, by no means, be compared to our material strivings hoping for a better salary, clothes, car, or an apartment, for example.

When we find ourselves fully dependent on the material sometimes, it is important that we refocus our priorities — acknowledge the severity that does not necessarily exist in close proximity to us — and take some action. You do not know how? Spreading the facts could be a good way to start …

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