Robert M. La Follette School of Public Affairs
Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Research by Wolfe, Pollak highlighted in Newsweek cover story

Barbara Wolfe Barbara Wolfe

The cover story for the September 2 issue of Newsweek magazine features research by La Follette School Professor Barbara Wolfe and faculty affiliate Seth Pollak. Their report “Association of Child Poverty, Brain Development, and Academic Achievement” is cited as one of two studies that “cracked open a public conversation” on the influence of poverty on children’s learning and achievement.

The study by Wolfe, Pollak, and two of their former graduate students, Nicole Hair and Jamie Hanson, examined 389 people aged 4 to 22 who were screened for a variety of factors suspected to adversely affect brain development. One-quarter of the households reported their total family income below 200 percent of the federal poverty level.

In their report in JAMA Pediatrics, the four researchers found that “poverty is tied to structural differences in several areas of the brain associated with school readiness skills, with the largest influence observed among children from the poorest households.”

The Newsweek article also references the report Family Income, Parental Education and Brain Structure in Children and Adolescents, published in Nature America in 2015. Kimberly Noble of Columbia University, one of the lead authors of that study, participated in a workshop hosted by the Institute for Research on Poverty (IRP) at UW-Madison in April 2016.

Wolfe and Pollak organized the IRP event, which brought together Noble and other national experts in poverty and developmental neuroscience to discuss current research and how it can be appropriate and effectively used to inform public policy. A summary of the workshop is online.

An earlier study by Wolfe, Pollak, their graduate students and researchers at the University of North Carolina that focused on how poverty influences the rate of growth of infant brain areas is also cited in the Newsweek article.

In addition, Wolfe recently collaborated with La Follette School Professor Jason Fletcher on a study about the relationship between family income and children’s non-cognitive (or socio-emotional) skill formation. Their report, published in the October 2016 issue of Economics of Education Review, provides “evidence that children enter kindergarten with substantial differences in non-cognitive skill endowment based on family resources.”

Wolfe is the Richard A. Easterlin Professor of Economics, Population Health Sciences and Public Affairs, and Pollak is director of the Child Emotion Lab at UW-Madison’s Waisman Center and a professor of anthropology, pediatrics, psychiatry, and public affairs. Both also are IRP affiliates.