How Poverty May Affect Memory: Research

How Poverty May Affect Memory: Research

School-aged children with a low-socioeconomic status exhibit both verbal and visuospatial working memory deficits, possibly due to increased levels of stress, a new study suggests.

Researcher Michele Tine from Dartmouth College investigated whether working memory of children living in rural poverty is distinct from the working memory profiles of children in urban poverty.

Both verbal and visuospatial tests were given to discern how memory deficits compared.

For the study, sixth grade students were selected to participate, broken into four categories: low-income rural, low-income urban, high-income rural, and high-income urban.

Children were categorised as low income if their family income was below the national median family income of USD 50,033, attend a school in which at least 75 per cent of students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, and the student themselves qualified for free lunches.

Participants were categorised as urban if the school they attended served an "urbanised area" as defined by the US Census Bureau: was located in a county with a population of more than 200,000 and had an average enrollment per grade level at the secondary level of more than 300 students.

The results clearly suggest that school-aged low-SES (socioeconomic status) children exhibit both verbal and visuospatial working memory deficits, possibly due to increased levels of stress, researchers said.

Children in urban poverty showed symmetric working memory weaknesses, while children in rural poverty had worse visuospatial working memory than verbal working memory.

The low-SES urban children had poorer verbal working memory than the low-SES rural children, possibly due to increased exposure to noise pollution, suggests Tine. The results also revealed that high-SES rural and urban children show near-identical verbal and visuospatial working memory.

"These results suggest that living in a rural vs urban area is associated with working memory for low-SES, but not high-SES children," said Tine.

Tine explains that this novel finding aligns with previous work showing that among low-SES children environmental factors account for the majority of variance in cognitive ability, while genes account for little variance. In high-income children the opposite is true.

For high-income children, genes account for the majority of variance.

The research was published in the Journal of Cognition and Development.