Brain Science, Dangerous? Not So Fast, Says Poverty Expert
Back in June, we wrote about a novel program in Boston that seeks to lift women and their families from poverty, in part by using the latest research in neuroscience. Specifically, the program (developed by the nonprofit Crittenton Women's Union) takes into account recent studies that reveal how trauma, and poverty, can rewire the brain and potentially undermine executive function.
In an Op-Talk piece in this week's New York Times headlined "Can Brain Science Be Dangerous?" writer Anna North cites our story, and then goes on to question whether this type of approach might be problematic. In the article, North refers to sociologist Susan Sered:
Dr. Sered...says that applying neuroscience to problems like poverty can sometimes lead to trouble: “Studies showing that trauma and poverty change people’s brains can too easily be read as scientific proof that poor people (albeit through no fault of their own) have inferior brains or that women who have been raped are now brain-damaged.”
She worries that neuroscience could be used to discount people’s experiences: “In settings where medical experts have a monopoly on determining and corroborating claims of abuse, what would happen when a brain scan doesn’t show the expected markers of trauma? Does that make the sufferer into a liar?”
We asked Elisabeth Babock, president and chief executive officer of Crittenten Women's Union, to respond to the Times piece. Here, lightly edited, is what she wrote:
Moving out of poverty in the U.S. today is an extremely complicated and challenging process. It involves trying to maintain a roof over your head when the minimum wage doesn’t cover the minimum rent; and trying to get a better paying job when almost all those jobs require education beyond high-school and the costs of that education, in both money and time, are well beyond the means of most low-wage workers. It involves trying to care for a family while filling in the gaps in what the minimum wage will buy with increasingly-frayed public supports. It involves a lot of juggling.
We at Crittenton Women’s Union (CWU) understand this process all too well because we work with hundreds of people trying to navigate their way out of poverty every day: homeless families living in our transitional housing and domestic violence shelters, and people who are living on the edge of homelessness, struggling to make ends meet. What we at CWU see is that the stress of this everyday struggle creates an additional set of monumental challenges for those we serve.
Our families often describe themselves as feeling “swamped” by their problems to the point that they can only think about how to deal with the crisis of the moment. And in those moments, they may not have the mental bandwidth to strategize about how to change their current circumstances or help them get ahead.
One of the most valuable things brain science research does for this struggle is that it validates what our families share about the way being in poverty affects them. Instead of saying that stress leaves people “irrevocably debilitated”, or worse still, that people should somehow rise above this crippling stress to “just move on” the science actually suggests something much more important. It calls upon all of us to understand that poverty, trauma, and discrimination are experiences whose cumulative effects impact our health, decision-making, and well-being in tangible and predictable ways, and because of this, we as a society can and must do our best to remediate it.
First, science shows us that people are highly “plastic” and respond to changes in the environment. If we reduce or remove stresses in the environment, the body and the mind respond positively and quickly. This holds true for both adults and children.
Second, the science shows that if in addition to removing stressors we also introduce better learning opportunities, both adults and children can improve the decision-making skills that will help them achieve their dreams for better lives.
At CWU, brain science has improved our understanding of the challenges our families face and has allowed us to create better ways to help them. We’ve built stronger environments, tools, and approaches designed to work with, not against, them, and we’ve built coaching models that strengthen their problem-solving and resilience. They are earning more, saving more, and graduating more than they did when our approaches were less informed. And when I say more, I mean at rates that are double, triple and quadruple what we were achieving in the past.
What I have learned through all this is that some people will use brain science to oversimplify the nature of poverty and blame the poor, but the real blame belongs on us as a society if we do not take full advantage of this promising new scientific lens to design better programs and policies to help them.