A slew of studies have recently documented the ways in which poverty can be as toxic to a developing brain as drugs or alcohol. The conditions associated with poverty - "overcrowding, noise, substandard housing, separation from parents, exposure to violence, family turmoil" and others - cause the brain to release cortisol, a stress hormone. Long term exposure to cortisol is toxic for the brain. This effect can also be transmitted inter-generationally: pregnant women can transmit cortisol to the developing fetus.
Over the past decade, the scientific consensus has become clear: poverty perpetuates poverty, generation after generation, by acting on the brain. The National Scientific Council has been working directly with policymakers to support measures that break this cycle, including better prenatal and pediatric care and more accessible preschool education. Levitt and his colleagues have also been advocating for changing laws that criminalize drug abuse during pregnancy, since, as they pointed out in a review paper, arrest and incarceration can also trigger the “maternal stress response system.” The story that science is now telling rearranges the morality of parenting and poverty, making it harder to blame problem children on problem parents. Building a healthy brain, it seems, is an act of barn raising.