There’s nothing like a really good pair of glasses to snap the world into focus. I saw things differently when I started learning about the ways poverty impacts people’s thinking, behavior, and health. Emerging research from many diverse fields, such as genetics, behavioral economics, cognitive neuroscience, medicine, and more, has converged to create a common Brain Science Lens. Once you start looking at the world through it, everything changes.
This lens shows us that if we grow up living under the stresses of poverty, trauma, and oppression, it affects the way our brains develop and our bodies function. We are more likely to be hypervigilant, more focused on survival and the immediate future, more worried, distrustful, less able to make and follow through on plans, and have a harder time anticipating the thoughts and behaviors of others and interacting with them. Our bodies are more likely to be at a constant state of readiness for fight or flight, and the hormones associated with this condition create huge wear and tear that prematurely ages us, makes us more susceptible to and slow to recover from diseases, and even affects our genes—how they work and how they are passed on to our children.
The Brain Science Lens also shows us that even if we weren’t raised under stressful conditions, any time we experience them, our thinking and behavior is impacted. All of us, while under stress, have a harder time interacting with others, managing our thoughts and impulses, organizing our lives, delaying gratification, making wise choices, and following through on them.
So when we use this new lens to look at families in poverty and all the systems attempting to help them, suddenly the intractability of poverty makes much more sense. Moving out of poverty has never been more complicated. Today, in order to earn a wage that can support them, workers below the poverty line must get training beyond high school in a field with family-sustaining jobs. At the same time, as they are trying to increase their skills and credentials, they must work to support themselves on low wages and care for their families. If they get help with any of these tasks, it is from a fraying and siloed system of public supports that normally causes them to go from one agency to another in order to get assistance with the basic necessities of food, child care, housing, education, and health.
The Brain Science Lens helps us see clearly how poverty causes stress, stress creates challenges to our core organizational and navigational skills, and these challenges affect our abilities to do our best at work, school, home, and navigating public systems. When the systems that support low-income families are built without an awareness of these special challenges, they are often built wrong.
Public-system siloes and complex eligibility rules add to the stresses of low-income families and therefore make them less likely to succeed. Human-service programs that provide only a small piece of what families need, especially when the programs are accompanied by inflexible rules for program access and compliance or overly directive and authoritarian staff approaches, exacerbate participant stress and can unintentionally create as many hurdles as they eliminate. When we start wearing the Brain Science Glasses, we can’t help but see hundreds of ways we could improve how we help families experiencing poverty while using public dollars more effectively.
Brain science at work
Many of these opportunities can be found in the integration and streamlining of systems of support for people in poverty. Around the country, human-service workers and low-income families are undergoing training on the impacts of stress and techniques for managing and mitigating those impacts. This work is improving participant engagement and outcomes. Economic policies that get at the root causes of poverty-related stress, by providing more efficient and stable financial supports, such as increased minimum wages and improved Earned Income Tax Credit and Child Tax Credit programs, have been shown to improve participants’ abilities to manage school and work and raise families.
But one of the greatest opportunities the Brain Science Lens illuminates can be found in the brain itself. Science shows us that the areas of the brain most impacted by stress and most critical for life-long success are also highly malleable and can be improved from birth and well into adulthood. Coaching models that help participants practice self-regulation, problem-solving, goal-attainment, resilience and persistence can be used in almost any programmatic setting and have been shown to significantly increase participant engagement and retention and improve outcomes.
In my own organization, we have seen very low-income families who are engaged in coaching for three to five years more than double their starting wages, attain new postsecondary credentials at rates more than five times community norms, and save eight times the average community savings for low-income families. Even while still homeless, children in our coaching programs are making demonstrable gains in brain functioning. And the agencies that are partnering with us all over the country are seeing similar improvements in their outcomes. The Washington State Department of Early Learning found that when coached for a year, parents of children in Head Start had statistically significant improvements in 21 areas of family stability and economic mobility.
So we are now urging everyone to try a new pair of Brain Science Glasses. It’s amazing how much clearer the path to economic mobility becomes when we do.
Elisabeth Babcock is president and CEO of Economic Mobility Pathways and a member of the US Partnership on Mobility from Poverty.