Friday, February 07, 2014

Give Them Food, Give Them Homes, Give Them Money

Growing up poor has long been associated with reduced educational attainment and lower lifetime earnings. Some evidence also suggests a higher risk of depression, substance abuse and other diseases in adulthood. Even for those who manage to overcome humble beginnings, early-life poverty may leave a lasting mark, accelerating aging and increasing the risk of degenerative disease in adulthood.

Yesterday's post was about poverty and it's impact on American educational outcomes. I thought I'd follow that up by sharing a link to a recent piece from the opinion pages of the New York Times, one that asks a question that researchers don't often get the opportunity to examine: What Happens When the Poor Receive a Stipend? We're not talking about charity or welfare, but rather, what happens when we simply give poor people money with no strings attached and no end in sight? 

Teaching preschoolers in a city that has a visible homeless population, I have conversations with them about poverty several times a year, including the one I wrote about in this post involving our "burglar." This is always the children's solution: "Give them food," "Give them houses," "Give them money." We adults, smug in the cynicism we often mistake for wisdom, nod along admiringly at their pure hearts and naiveté while making excuses for not giving this straight-forward solution a try, at least not on a scale that can be used for study purposes. Our mental experiments cause us to conclude that it would make people lazy, that it will rob them of the "dignity of work," that it would be far too expensive. 

As it turns out, we may want to listen to our kids.

We already know that one in five American children live in poverty. We already know that these children face a much, much higher risk for psychiatric, behavioral, and emotional problems. But, when the Eastern Band of Cherokees in the Great Smokey Mountains of North Carolina decided in 1996 to to divide the profits from their new casino equally among their 8,000 or so members, roughly half of whom lived in poverty, a rare opportunity emerged for researchers.

What did they find?

. . . just four years after the (cash) supplements began, (researchers) observed marked improvements among those who moved out of poverty. The frequency of behavioral problems declined by 40 percent, nearly reaching the risk of children who had never been poor. Already well-off Cherokee children, on the other hand, showed no improvement. The supplements seemed to benefit the poorest children most dramatically.

Minor crimes declined, graduation rates increased, substance abuse dropped off. And why did it work?

The supplements eased the strain of that feast-or-famine existence . . . Some used the money to pay a few months' worth of bills in advance. Other bought their children clothes for school, or even Christmas presents. Mostly, though, the energy once spent fretting over such things was freed up. That "helps parents be better parents . . ."

Contrary to the cruel myth of Ronald Reagan's "welfare queens" living large on government handouts, the reality of poverty is extreme stress, a condition that makes it nearly impossible for parents to provide their children with the caregiver attention and warmth that protects developing brains from environmental stresses. 

Early-life stress and poverty correlated with the shrunken hippocampus and amygdala, brain regions important for memory and emotional well-being, respectively. Again, parental nurturing seems to protect children . . . When it came to hippocampal volume in particular, parental warmth mattered more than material poverty.

Oh, but what about the cost? Certainly, even if we acknowledge that no-strings-attached cash supplements can alleviate many of the negative influences of poverty, society can't afford to be so generous. Or maybe the opposite is true. Maybe we can't afford not to.

Randall Akee, an economist at the University of California, Los Angles . . . argues that the supplements actually save money in the long run. He calculates that 5 to 10 years after age 19, the savings incurred by the Cherokee income supplements surpass the initial costs -- the payments to parents while the children were minors. That's a conservative estimate, he says, based on reduced criminality, a reduced need for psychiatric care and savings gained from not repeating grades.

As for making people lazy, the state of Utah's initiative to end homelessness in their state by simply giving homes to people who need them, again with no strings attached, is finding the opposite. This simple act, the solution, like the one to "give them money," for which the children of Woodland Park have long advocated, has not only resulted in a 74 percent decrease in homelessness, but has allowed many of these people to pull themselves together, to get healthy, to get cleaned up, to get enough rest, and ultimately to find jobs: the opposite of being lazy. Of course, Utah has also reported cost savings.

People often claim that poverty is a problem too big, complicated, and expensive for us to solve, but clearly it is not. And all this without pointing out that it's the right thing to do. Only cynicism, tortured moralizing, and political ideology stand in the way.

Listen to your children. They know this already: give them food, give them homes, give them money. Only then can we really hope to give them education.

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1 comment:

Charlotte (Nursery teacher - London) said...

Thanks so much for this post. It came at just the right time for us here in the UK in the same week that our Secretary of State for Education decides that the way in which state schools can achieve the same educational standards as fee paying schools is to get the kids to stay at school for 10 hour days and that these same schools should start admitting 2 year olds...