Meeting Poverty in Person

On November 29, 2016, Catholic Charities hosted a poverty summit in Evansville.  Business and community leaders from the city and surrounding areas were invited to discuss ways in which we as a collective body could address the issue of poverty in our community.  I was invited to be on the panel of presenters, and am including here a summary of many of my remarks on the psychological impact of poverty.

It has long been known that those in poverty are at increased risk of negative emotional, behavioral, and cognitive outcomes.  Teen parenting and low school attainment are two of the most common factors associated with children being raised in poverty.  We also know that under-performing schools, poor nutrition, parental substance use, and residence in distressed neighborhoods increases the likelihood of indigence.  Risk factors impact at the individual, relational, and institutional level.  For example, a child with poor nutrition in childhood (individual), who witnesses domestic violence in the home (relational), and spends much time in a neglectful daycare setting (institutional) experiences these factors in a cumulative, interactive manner.

Youth who live in poverty are more likely to be depressed, have conduct and impulse control issues, and substance abuse concerns by adolescence.  Parents in poverty also have higher rates of depression, which can lead to poorer attachment and harsh/inconsistent parenting styles, especially when they experience job loss or chronic unemployment.  Numerous studies have also found connections between poverty and neurological development, especially in areas (such as the frontal lobe, amygdala, hippocampus) that regulate emotions, memory, problem-solving, and higher-order thinking.

While most studies of this neurological link have been correlational (not causal), a recent study found that exposure to poverty at the age of 3 months was associated with less brain volume in the orbitofrontal cortex (OFC) at the age of 25 even after a number of related factors were statistically accounted for.  These included total intracranial volume, parental education/pathology, delivery complications, current poverty level, and personal pathology.  Researchers surmised that among other possible factors, poor nutrition in utero and in infancy may have been associated with this negative outcome.

Beyond the neurology, it has long been documented that an achievement gap exists between poor children and their counterparts by the time they reach kindergarten.  In the 1980’s, as documented in the book, “Whatever It Takes” by Paul Tough, researchers Betty Hart & Todd Risley set out to try and understand this pattern more.  By the age of 3, they found that children from professional families had an average vocabulary of 1,100 words; children of parents on welfare averaged 525 words.  The average IQ among middle class children was 117; welfare children had an average IQ of 79.

Poorer vocabulary/intellectual outcomes seemed most connected to two factors.  One, there was a significant discrepancy between the number of words that poor children heard at home versus youth raised in professional families.  Professional parents directed an average of 487 utterances (of varying lengths) each hour while in the home; in welfare homes, the average was 178.  By age three, it was predicted that professional kids heard more than 30 million words; for kids in welfare, it was around 10 million.

But it wasn’t just the number of utterances that seemed to matter.  It was also the type, which the researchers distinguished between discouragements (e.g., disapproval, prohibition) versus encouragements (e.g., approval, praise, uplifting statements).  By 3, the average professional child heard 80,000 discouragements and 500,000 encouragements; it was almost flipped for poor children to 80,000 encouragements and 200,000 discouragements.  The more the number of words increased, the greater the complexity of utterances did too (thus stimulating greater intellectual development).

Beyond psychological outcomes, it is also clear that as children grow, they become more aware of indigence in various ways.  Children develop a different awareness of their poverty and that of others depending on developmental stages.  By 3-5 years of age, youth understand differences in race, gender, and the concepts of unequal/equal.  They are generally able to label self/others as poor by the age of 5.  Five to eight-year-olds see poverty as true problem; they develop perceptions regarding the behaviors/academics/occupations of those who are poor, and develop their own perceptions of self-efficacy (what they can do in specific areas).  By the age of 9-11, youth are very aware of stereotypes of poor (and how they do or don’t apply to self) and increasingly recognize psychological factors of poverty, not just physical characteristics.  Overall, kids from lower social economic backgrounds identify poor children more by changing thoughts/perceptions whereas middle/upper class kids perceive poor children more by fixed traits.  These factors often influence how poor children perform in various environments, such as the classroom.  For example, a child who feels (status) anxiety because his family is unable to afford opportunities that others in the classroom are talking about may end up performing worse on tests after related conversations ensue.

Interestingly, some research suggests that the effects of poverty have more to do with relative than absolute depravation.  These findings suggests that once individuals/families are above a certain minimum income, negative psychological, educational, and physical effects are largely attributed to level of inequality between richest 20% and poorest 20% rather than by direct effects of their deprevation.  Countries such as the US, Portugal, UK, and Singapore had worst outcomes, and highest rates of disparity between the top and bottom 20%; Japan, Finland, Sweden had best outcomes; similar findings were noted with U.S. states.  Societies with best outcomes had increased social cohesion, community life, trust-building opportunities and less difference in status, access, cultural opportunities, and social hierarchies.

Statistics (such as I have mentioned) suggest patterns of which can help better inform and guide our actions in addressing poverty.  However, each person who experiences poverty should not be viewed as a statistical likelihood, but rather as a unique individual with talents, challenges, needs, and desires that should be met face-to-face, day-to-day.  As great of a travesty as it is to ignore the needs of our own brothers and sisters (which could mine or your needs tomorrow), it is just as great of a travesty to treat those in poverty as victims who are just victims.  As Liz Murray, the inspiration behind the homeless to Harvard story once said, “Previously, when teachers…saw me as a victim—despite good intentions—that’s what I believed about myself, too. [Once] I had teachers who held me to a higher standard, and that helped me rise to the occasion.”

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