(Relative) poverty is poison

Paul Krugman’s column yesterday is called "poverty is poison" and refers to the growing literature on how poverty harms children’s mental development.  He uses this as a starting point to complain that both Obama and Clinton’s anti-poverty proposals are "modest in scope and far from central to their campaigns."

I think this is unfair — as Shawn Fremstad at Inclusion argues, "Calling Clinton’s and Obama’s anti-poverty initiatives ‘modest in
scope’ only makes sense if one thinks that calling for say, universal
health care, has little do with reducing poverty and isn’t part of an
anti-poverty initiative." And even if you only look at more narrowly defined anti-poverty programs, the Pathways articles I mentioned last week contain proposals that are far from modest.

But that’s not really what I want to talk about. Krugman quotes this sentence from the Financial Times article: “many children growing up in very poor families with low social status
experience unhealthy levels of stress hormones, which impair their
neural development.”

Two things are striking in that sentence:

1)  The "with low social status" part of that sentence suggests that it’s relative poverty, not material deprivation, that causes the stunted neural development.  Margy Waller at Inclusion may be unhappy that Krugman’s still talking about "poverty," but this point is totally consistent with their overall argument.  (More on this later — I’m in the middle of reading Robert Frank’s Falling Behind, which is all about relative status.)

2) It suggests that stress is the main connection between poverty and poor child outcomes, not lack of educational experiences or the other things we talked about last week.

Unfortunately, the AAAS presentations that this statement is based on don’t seem to be available online.  Some of the speakers have other papers available, but they’re pretty technical, so it may take a while before I have the energy to work through them.

3 Responses to “(Relative) poverty is poison”

  1. bj Says:

    You mean articles linking poverty to elevated stress hormones and linking that to impaired neural development?
    If so, post the cites; I’ll look at them. But, my inclination is to think that there is no way that the level of science is sufficient to make this causational link. The general scoop is that the brain is enormously resistant to perturbation, not that it is deeply vulnerable.
    Sounds like a study that should be brought to the attention of the neurocurmudgeons: http://www.jsmf.org/badneuro/about.htm (but, I’d need to see the cites to see).
    But, maybe that’s not the link you’re talking about?

  2. Elizabeth Says:

    That’s what I think they’re saying. Here’s the agenda for the session — you’d probably do better than me at figuring out which papers by the authors are worth reading:
    Poverty and Brain Development: Correlations, Mechanisms, and Societal Implications
    Synopsis:
    Childhood poverty is associated, on average, with lower performance on virtually all measures of cognitive attainment. This association presumably plays a role in the persistence of poverty across generations; overcoming the many environmental, social, economic, and political obstacles that impede upward mobility is a challenge in itself and is all the more daunting for those with below-average cognitive resources. Sociologists and psychologists have long documented the cognitive correlates of childhood poverty and have begun to identify potential causal factors in the childhood environment. At the same time, some of these same general causal factors have recently come under study in neuroscience labs. There, the goal has been to understand the mechanisms by which early experience affects later brain function in animals as well as to understand the lifelong plasticity of the brain. This symposium explores the prospects for integrating these perspectives on experience and brain development in humans, paying special attention to the problem of childhood poverty. Panelists review findings on the relationship between poverty and cognitive function, the role of environmental factors such as cognitive stimulation and stress, and attempts to characterize brain development as a function of socioeconomic status as well as the neural bases of cognitive intervention programs with at-risk children.
    Organized by:
    Martha J. Farah, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, PA
    Presentations:
    Symposium Organizer–Martha J. Farah, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, PA
    Overview of Poverty and Child Development–Jeanne Brooks-Gunn, Columbia University, New York City, NY
    Unpacking the Causes: The Role of Stress–Gary W. Evans, Cornell University, Ithaca, NY
    Stimulation, Stress, and Brain Development–Martha J. Farah, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, PA
    Experience Shapes Human Brain Development and Function–Courtney Darves-Stevens, University of Oregon, Eugene, OR
    Using Neuroscience To Inform Public Policy for Children Living in Poverty–Jack P. Shonkoff, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA
    Discussant–Mary Eming Young, The World Bank, Washington, DC

  3. karim Says:

    You might want to read one of Farah’s papers that I found online.
    Farah, Martha J., Kimberly G. Noble and Hallam Hurt. “Poverty, Privilege and Brain Development: Empirical Findings and Ethical Implications.” Penn Psychology. University of Pennsylvania. 1 Mar. 2008 .
    I am working on an undergrad paper on the topic. I am frustrated that I cannot access the research presented at the conference.

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