Two weeks ago, the results of an important study – “Childhood Poverty, Chronic Stress, and Adult Working Memory” – were published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The researchers, Gary W. Evans and Michelle A. Schamberg, examined the relationship between poverty and poor academic achievement, which they note has been studied extensively for many years ( photo credit: frerieke). What makes their research unique is that they measured the mediating effects that chronic stress, resulting from living in poverty during childhood, have on later achievement. They found that the chronic and intensive stressors caused by poverty leads to “working memory deficits” in young adulthood.
Because working memory is critical for language comprehension, reading, problem solving, and long-term retention of information learned, weakened working memory from poverty-induced stress may be central to explaining why young adults who lived in poverty as children have poorer educational outcomes than young adults who lived above the poverty line as children. The longer the child was poor, from birth to age 13, the weaker her or his working memory was as a young adult.
I read Evans and Schamberg’s study with great interest because of its important implications. Poor parents have long been exhorted to spend more time reading to their children and taking them to museums and other educational venues where admission may be free on certain days of the week, with the expectation that these activities, routinely provided by more affluent parents to their children, would improve poor children’s academic achievement.
However, while undoubtedly enriching, the Evans and Schamberg study indicates that these activities are not sufficient to compensate for the negative impact of the daily stressors inflicted by a life of economic deprivation.
Those stressors must be alleviated as well. As important as the findings are, though, the Evans and Schamberg study may not be generalizable to children of color. That’s because their sample was composed of 195 white male and female young adults. This surprises me given that, according to the U.S. Bureau of the Census, while 12.1% of white families live below the poverty line, 29.1% of black families and 24.3% of Hispanic families live in poverty. And the further impoverished a family is, the more likely they are to be black or Hispanic.
Certainly, poor black and Hispanic families experience the same kinds of stressors that poor white families experience: e.g., housing problems, the dangers posed by living in high-crime neighborhoods, stretching the limited income available to buy food and pay for other necessities. But poor families of color experience a stressor that poor white families do not experience: racism.
There is a substantial body of research that shows that racism is a chronic stressor throughout the life course for people of color, and that the stress caused by racism has serious negative effects on both psychological and physical health. For instance, Nancy Krieger and Stephen Sidney found that stress induced by racial discrimination has as much or more of an impact on blood pressure as smoking, lack of exercise, and a high-fat, high-sodium diet (“Racial Discrimination and Blood Pressure: The CARDIA Study of Young Black and White Adults,” American Journal of Public Health, 86(1996):1370-1378). Ruth Thompson-Miller and Joe Feagin found in their interviews with elderly blacks that memories of racist interactions with whites produced a number of negative physical and psychological reactions indicative of what they call “race-based traumatic stress,” the impact of which lasts a lifetime (“Continuing Injuries of Racism: Counseling in a Racist Context,” The Counseling Psychologist, 35(2007):106-115).
Importantly, Thompson-Miller and Feagin show that men and women of color experience race-based traumatic stress regardless of their social class. But when we consider the additional stressors of poverty and the fact that people of color are disproportionately represented among the poor, the need to examine racism as a stressor in research such as Evans and Schamberg’s seems essential.
Although they do not mention examining racial differences or the potential role of racism on working memory or other indicators of academic achievement in future studies, I hope Evans and Schamberg, as well as other scientists, will undertake this challenging but important research.
For an extensive review of research on the physical and especially psychological impacts of racism on people of color, see a special issue of The Counseling Psychologist. I’m grateful to Ruth Thompson-Miller at Texas A&M University for bringing this special issue to my attention.