Want to Get Memphis Off All the ‘Bad’ Lists? Focus on Child Poverty.

Children growing up in poverty… are growing up under extreme stress.
It could be affecting how their brains develop.
If any city should care – it’s Memphis.  We have 67,000 children under the age of five. Their brains are developing and will continue to develop for many more years. And they are growing up in one the poorest big cities in the U.S.  Almost half of all Memphis children live in poverty.


According to the Urban Child Institute, when the part of a child’s brain that responds to stress is overstimulated, it can impair the ability to learn. This is happening on a massive scale in Memphis
Epigenetics is the study of changes in gene activity, sometimes caused by environment and home life. The more we learn, the more we find that early childhood events and conditions can have effects that last long into adulthood.

An over-active stress management system can cause disruptions in the development of brain circuitry and increase risk of a compromised immune system, hypertension, heart disease, obesity, substance abuse, and mental illness. In other words, early childhood experiences have life-long effects.

When young children develop in toxic environments associated with poverty, their brains naturally make survival their top priority. The result is that parts of the brain associated with survival are prioritized, rather than areas of the brain that control higher order thinking and reasoning.

The result is that insult is added to injury. A child born into a disadvantaged environment also has a more difficult time learning. Recent studies show, for example, that young children exposed to high levels of domestic violence have IQs at age 5 that are up to 8 points lower than those of otherwise similar children.

                                                                                                   -Urban Child Institute

You can read the full article here.  It also links to intriguing graphs and statistics about poverty in Memphis and Shelby county.

The good news – the affects of poverty aren’t intractable. According to the Urban Child Institute, quality educational interventions made with both children and parents can help kids catch up.

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This blog is a service of the Shelby County Public Defender’s Office in Memphis, Tenn.