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Poverty's Effect on the Brain

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Jesus said, “Sell your possessions, and give alms. Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys.” (Luke 12:33)



My heart breaks when I hear those in poverty ridiculed for the bad choices that sometimes leaves people in poverty for generations. It isn’t as simple as a lack of discipline or vision. Tara Garcia Matthewson, writer for The Atlantic, confirms, “When a person lives in poverty, a growing body of research suggests the limbic system is constantly sending fear and stress messages to the prefrontal cortex, which overloads its ability to solve problems, set goals, and complete tasks in the most efficient ways.” With an overwhelming feeling of fear it is no wonder people in poverty are often focused on instant gratification. If the brain is telling you it can be taken away at any moment, why not spend it all immediately?!

EMPath and its CEO, Elisabeth Babcock, work to make positive changes and transformations in the lives of the chronically poor. Babcock offers words of hope, when she states, “What we’re trying to do is create virtuous cycles where people take a step and they find out they can accomplish something that they might not have thought they could accomplish, and they feel better about themselves.” “Maybe that step helps them earn more money, solves a child-care problem that leads to better child behavior, or simply establishes a sense of control over their own lives. All of these things reduce stress, freeing up more mental bandwidth for further positive steps.” Poverty is less about perceived choices, than about providing opportunity to transform the mind, through hope-filled experiences.

It is never too late to make transformative change. Yet, the earlier in life positive change can take place, the more profound and lasting the impact. Al Race, the deputy co-director of the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University, which has an enduring partnership with EMPath, says, “children who grow up in and remain in poverty are doubly affected. But the sections of the brain in question are also known to be particularly ‘plastic,’” Race said, “meaning they can be strengthened and improved well into adulthood.” The answer to poverty isn’t judgment and condemnation, it is about providing hope and opportunity. Further, it requires the patience necessary to change the brain’s response from fear to confidence.

Today, pray for those trapped in poverty. Direct your prayers so the focus is less generic. Focus your prayers on the organizations working to transform not only the finances, but the brain’s response, from fear to confidence. The prayers begin with those blessed with abundance, that they might recognize the complexity of poverty and the need for compassion. Then, to offer organizations that address the core issues of poverty some of our time and financial resources. When we do, we are following Jesus’ call.