Can Brain Science Help Lift People Out Of Poverty?

Five years ago Lauretta Brennan was a single mom on welfare with a pack-a-day smoking habit, stuck in a "bad" relationship and living in the South Boston projects where she grew up.

Now, she's still living in the projects with her young son, but the bad boyfriend is gone and Brennan's got a job as an administrative assistant after receiving a business management degree. And she quit smoking.

Her childhood in the projects was marked by alcoholism and violence all around, Brennan said; "having no adult role model was the norm, being with a man who's ignorant, that was the norm."

Lauretta Brennan graduated from Bunker Hill Community College with an Associates Degree in Business Management in June 2013 (Courtesy)
Lauretta Brennan graduated from Bunker Hill Community College with an Associates Degree in Business Management in June 2013 (Courtesy)

But now, thanks to a novel program that uses the latest neuroscience research to help women dig themselves out of poverty, Brennan says: "I don't want to live off welfare. I want to make money and be around people who work and go to school. In five years, the program got me to think more like an executive — I have goals, I'm an organizer managing my family well. I'm not scared anymore."

This shift in thinking — from chaotic, stressed-out, oppressed and overwhelmed to purposeful and goal-oriented — may not sound like brain science. But it fits into an emerging body of research that suggests that the stress of living in poverty can profoundly change the brain: it can undermine development and erode important mental processes including executive function, working memory, impulse-control and other cognitive skills.

To fix that damage, the new thinking goes, people must engage in activities and practices that strengthen this diminished functionality and, exploiting the brain's ability to change (plasticity in neuroscience lingo) re-train themselves to think more critically and strategically.

"Poverty whacks executive function and executive function is precisely what's needed to move people out of poverty," says Elisabeth Babcock, chief executive of the nonprofit Crittenton Women's Union, a Boston-based group that draws on the latest brain research to help families achieve economic success. "What the new brain science says is that the stresses created by living in poverty often work against us, make it harder for our brains to find the best solutions to our problems. This is a part of the reason why poverty is so 'sticky.'"

In a recent paper, "Using Brain Science To Design New Pathways Out Of Poverty," Babcock makes the case that living in an impoverished environment "has the capacity to negatively impact the decision-making processes involved in problem-solving, goal-setting and goal attainment." In other words, this type of stress can "hijack" the brain.

As other researchers, including Jack Shonkoff, director of the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard, have noted, this chronic vise of pressure — to pay the bills, function at work, raise the kids, and simply survive in an atmosphere rife with social bias and harsh living conditions — "places extraordinary demands on cognitive bandwidth." Babcock writes:

"The prefrontal cortex of the brain — the area of the brain that is associated with any of the analytic processes necessary to solve problems, set goals and optimally execute chosen strategies — works in tandem with the limbic system, which processes and triggers emotional reactions to environmental stimuli...When the limbic brain is overactive and sending out too many powerful signals of desire, stress, or fear, the prefrontal brain can get swamped and the wave of emotion can drown out clear focus and judgement..."

How does this play out in real life? Chuck Carter, senior VP of research at Crittenton Women's Union, explains:

"One of the things the brain science brings is something of an 'aha' in terms of why things are sometimes harder than we expect them to be. When you're looking at a family that is struggling and making decisions that you don't really understand, having that research helps you adds another perspective. A lot of nonprofit organizations look at the social determinants [of poverty] but not a lot look at the science that says, 'What else is at play?'

"I think that, on the ground, it gives us creative ways to think about the work and how we might approach it...Often families are in a lot of crises...and they feel they need to do things 'right now.' So, for instance, we've got a family, and they're in a hallway and they'll have to talk to the case manager 'right now.' And we ask whether it's a true emergency, and if not, can we talk about this the next morning, and not in the hallway. It's a problem with executive function and poor impulse control, but we can help them slow down and figure out the right time to figure this out and what information do they need. It's about not responding so impulsively in other parts of their lives. So, in thinking about what to do with money, it can be a question of, 'Do I buy cigarettes now or save the money for some new furniture when I move?'"

So how do you begin to fix all of this?

I asked Babcock a bit about the science behind her organization’s Mobility Mentoring program, in which low-income — mostly single — mothers apply to get training, professional mentoring, financial and other support for three to five years, in hopes of attaining economic independence.

Here, edited, is our discussion:

RZ: What does the research say about how poverty changes the brain? And how does a "hijacked" brain function compared to a brain not experiencing intense, chronic stress?

EB: Poverty hits what scientists call our executive functioning skills: our ability to problem-solve, set priorities and goals, juggle and multi-task, focus and stick to things. And it does this in at least two very important ways. First, the stress of dealing with new problems every day and never having enough to make ends meet overwhelms our heads and swamps us. It overloads the circuits in our brains and compromises our decision-making in the moment.

There’s real science on this (See the recent book, "Scarcity: Why Having So Little Means So Much," by authors Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir) and it affects all of us when we are under stress. And, poor people are under stress more than most. When you are under stress, it does not allow you to do our best thinking.

Second, if we’ve been raised in poverty under all this stress, our executive functioning wiring, the actual neurology of our brains, is built differently than if we’re not raised in poverty. It is built to react quickly to danger and threats and not built as much to plan or execute strategies for how we want things to be in the future because the future is so uncertain and planning is so pointless that this wiring isn’t as called for.

For example, [in our program there was] a single mother with one son, and she was missing a lot of time at work because she was frequently called to meet with her son's teachers about his behavioral issues in class. She was stressed because her son was not doing well in school and the school’s approach of having her come in to meet with them multiple times a week affected her ability to succeed at work. Her son had been diagnosed with ADD and she initially thought that meant that she should be there for him anytime the school called. Of course, that meant that her work was interrupted. She could not focus mentally and physically and eventually she got fired.

But, with some help in how to apply more robust problem-solving skills, this mother secured an educational advocate for her son who worked to make sure he received an Individualized Education Plan which helped resolve his behavioral and academic issues.

In addition, she worked out a more feasible emergency contact plan with the school so that they only called her in certain situations. She has since secured another job.

How do you exploit this new brain science to help women emerge from poverty?

Based on our new understanding of the brain and how it works we know now that we can reinvent ourselves and our approaches. The new science also says these problem-solving executive functioning skills that we need most are housed in wiring in parts of the brain that remain “plastic” and can be coached well into adulthood — even into old age.

This information is showing us that coaching people in the right ways can actually build new problem-solving brain cells that show up on actual brain scans. Science shows us that cognitive gaming apps can improve adult memory, problem-solving, focus and self-control, and strategic thinking. [An aside: Crittenton Women's Union conducted a very small pilot study using Luminosity apps to see if it helped the women. The research was mixed, but more experiments are in the works.]

We are using this information to build new tools and programs to give low-income families a real chance to work their way up to economic independence.

What works best and what doesn't work?

We know that according to brain science, we can help people of any age build new skills, learn new ways of coping. We know it’s easier to do this with children, but adults can do it too. We know that the stress of poverty compromises our decision-making abilities. We also know that getting out of poverty is complicated. We need to make certain they have good housing, job skills training and/or education, help build parenting skills, manage finances, deal with transportation issues, and other basic needs. [Incorporating all this] into a person’s life and ...getting all the pieces to fit together is tough.

It is not enough to give people directions like: "Go here, fill out that application, bring a resume written like this and wear that," or "Raise your kids this way; pay your rent on time; make a budget...”

These are all the simple, rules-driven directives that the older, anti-poverty interventions told us we should do to help families. But we've found this is not terribly effective.

We advocate that programs should be as user friendly as possible: help people along by breaking complex directions into a series of easier steps; make staff available for consultations, referrals, and feedback. Don’t just point people to a resource that requires multiple applications, steps and processes and send them on their way without any opportunity for further support.

Instead, we focus on helping people become successful and have a better life by providing opportunities to assess their own problems, recognize that they do have options, weigh choices based on what’s best for their family, set goals, juggle priorities, multi-task, and stringing together all of these things over time, helps improve problem solving, decision-making, and critical thinking.

Monetary incentives are used in some of your programs. How do these work and how is this related to brain science?

If you can increase the resources families have, you can help reduce their worry and stress over basic survival while at the same allow them to better focus on other things: becoming better parents, managing their money, going to school or training. Incentive programs that help reduce stress of low-income families can be extremely effective. For example, a client who wants to go to college might have a goal to complete a Free Application for Student Aid. When this goal is completed we may provide an incentive of $25 [within a timeframe of] two weeks to one month. Completing a semester with solid grades might be rewarded with a $250 incentive and the goal timeframe would be set for the end of the semester, months away. The level of incentives vary by program, for instance, the one Lauretta Brennan was enrolled in provides a $500 incentive for significant goal achievement like getting an Associate’s degree and $1,000 incentive for buying your own home.

How do you quantify success?

Here's what our research shows: There were 44 low-income single mothers participating in Crittenton Women's Union's [most extensive] five-year program as of June 30, 2013. These women had been in the program an average of three years; all of them were living in subsidized housing when they started, and they had an average of $12,000 in earned income. As of March, the following outcomes had been reported:

•80% were enrolled in school or employed last year (compared to 45% at the start of the program).

•52% earned their AA degree or higher (compared to 32% at the start).

•Nine percent of the women purchased their own homes.

•Thirty percent of the women got jobs paying wages averaging $45K – $50K per year.

For people unfamiliar with the struggles of the poor what do you wish they could understand?
People need to know that getting out of poverty is a journey that takes years, not months. Fifty years ago, the pathway out of poverty was based your ability to get a “good” job in manufacturing, transportation, construction, public sector. You didn’t need a college degree to get these jobs and most of them paid family-sustaining wages.

Getting out of poverty today is a very complicated process. [We] are trying to help mostly single parents, with limited education, working jobs that pay nothing, relying on quicksand public benefits to fill the gaps in their lives, trying to take care of their kids, to support their families, while they work and go to school at the same time. This is a problem-solving, time-juggling, multi-processing navigational task of the highest order.

Rachel Zimmerman Reporter
Rachel Zimmerman previously reported on health and the intersection of health and business for WBUR. She is working on a memoir about rebuilding her family after her husband’s suicide. 



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