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I have been an elementary and secondary school teacher and administrator. Currently, I am a faculty member in the Faculty of Education at Wilfrid Laurier University, Waterloo, Ontario, Canada. My M.Ed. and Ph.D. had a focus on the educational and linguistic experiences of children who moved from other countries to Canada.

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Poverty and biology: The magnified challenge of breaking out of poverty

I recently read an article that made a persuasive case for how poverty is more than "simply" a socio-economic condition that can be changed if we just work hard enough.

Here is the author's supposition:

We’ve learned that the stresses associated with poverty have the potential to change our biology in ways we hadn’t imagined. It can reduce the surface area of your brain, shorten your telomeres and lifespan, increase your chances of obesity, and make you more likely to take outsized risks.

Now, new evidence is emerging suggesting the changes can go even deeper—to how our bodies assemble themselves, shifting the types of cells that they are made from, and maybe even how our genetic code is expressed, playing with it like a Rubik’s cube thrown into a running washing machine. If this science holds up, it means that poverty is more than just a socioeconomic condition. It is a collection of related symptoms that are preventable, treatable—and even inheritable. In other words, the effects of poverty begin to look very much like the symptoms of a disease.

If you have 15 minutes and the interest, I would encourage you to read the entire article: Why Poverty is Like a Disease by Christian Cooper (click here for the article).

Reading the article made me wonder about those who live in impoverished conditions around the world, whether in urban or rural communities in Canada or Haiti or elsewhere. There are people who make their way out of poverty - for many of the reasons that the author of the article attributes to his own movement out of poverty - yet, many more remain in poverty generation after generation.

Poverty might mean that a 10 year old child does not attend school. Or, if she does, that she only receives a minimal amount of food, thus, preventing her from concentrating on the work at school. Or wondering what will happen when his mother or father can't pay the bill for him to attend school the next month (remember that in much of the world, school tuition and fees are the norm). Or having to work every night to help provide some money for the family. Or questioning what the child will do upon graduating from elementary school when opportunities for secondary school are limited.

Worse, as the article suggests, poverty might actually influence the genetic make up of those impacted by it, even to two generations later. So, poverty has significant immediate, short-term, and long-term implications.

So, what is our response and our responsibility as educators and community leaders?

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