This post continues our new blog series on poverty. As our nation reflects on its progress in fighting poverty over the last 50 years, this blog series will highlight how psychology can contribute further to this discussion.
By Samantha Melvin (Manager, NEED Lab at Columbia University)
Great research starts with a spark: a lunge for pen and paper to draw a pathway or outline a study, a midnight dash for statistics software to analyze something conceived in a dream, a great idea. Academics live for these moments – the all-consuming focus on thinking through a tricky question and the excitement over the impact its answer might have.
The story with research prompted by the War on Poverty is no different. We can only wonder whether those early researchers imagined that their work would inspire hundreds of additional studies, and even after 50 years of seeking answers to their questions, we still have work to do.
Fifty years of “war”: A brief history of research on poverty and child development
Building on several decades of educator experience and a growing body of research, developmental psychologists Betty Hart and Todd Risley published some astonishing findings in the mid-’90s. Their longitudinal research showed that by age 3, children from higher-income families had larger vocabularies and heard millions more words than children raised in poverty, and these disparities in language exposure predicted subsequent cognitive development and academic achievement. This was an important time for research about the effects of economic injustice on our children.
Economists soon joined the conversation, applying their cost-benefit framework to early childhood investment programs like Perry Preschool, and arguing that investments in early life had the potential to boost the life chances of poor children in ways that would pay social dividends for years to come.
In the last decade or so, neuroscientists have thrown their hats into the ring, looking at the ways in which our brains are shaped by our earliest experiences. They are seeking to understand the neurobiological bases of unequal development for children raised in poverty.
More recently, developmental psychologists have recognized that, despite a historical tendency toward research involving socioeconomically advantaged samples, they must reach across racial and socioeconomic lines to find ways to study how all kids develop and learn, not just how white kids from upper middle class families do.
Yet few academics from these different disciplines talk with one another and share their knowledge in ways that might make a bigger difference in fighting inequality. What would happen if they did? What if all these brilliant minds got together and discussed not just that there are enormous differences in how America’s children develop and what might be causing those differences, but what can be done about it?
Blame it on causality
Those familiar with this literature have often encountered the phrase “though we can’t prove causality…” This issue is vital but difficult to address. How can we use scientific findings to intervene on something as big-picture as poverty? Specifically, how can we do so in a way that both provides causal evidence on the effects of poverty and represents a step toward eradicating economic inequality? Sure, we’ve tried a hundred different tactics to target the disparities that pervade our society, but most interventions are still relatively small-scale. Even nationwide policy efforts, initiated from across the political spectrum, serve as cautionary tales of how well-intended programs can perpetuate the very systems of educational inequality that they seek to abolish.
Try as we might, it is not easy to challenge the deeper systemic inequality of today’s American landscape. Thus far, many of our attempts to address socioeconomic disparities in development and education work within existing institutionalized structures—from dividing students by SES through school districting, tracking, and privatization; to promoting standards that are difficult for neighborhoods, schools, or individuals to meet. This makes it nearly impossible to foster change at a foundational level.
So how can we eliminate the effects of poverty? Just give people money and hope for the best?
It’s actually not quite as crazy as it sounds. Several quasi-experimental studies show consistent associations between increased income and child development. What we need is a randomized experiment that will definitively study the causal effects of unconditional cash payments on child development. Such a study could also tell us what it is about poverty that leads to developmental disparities, because we know it’s not just about the money.
Is it financial need that makes it difficult for parents to buy developmentally appropriate material resources? Does working extra jobs or longer hours to make ends meet mean less time spent talking to children? Or does increased parental stress about finances affect the quality of parent-child interactions? We need to take a closer look at each of these pathways in order to identify the most promising steps for intervention.
Poverty Reduction and the Developing Child
This is exactly what a cross-pollinating group of economists, neuroscientists, and developmental psychologists are trying to do in the Poverty Reduction and the Developing Child project. Currently working on a pilot in New York City, this team hopes to explore the causal effects of increased income on early development by intervening during the first three years of life.
In the full-scale randomized control trial, families living below the poverty line will receive monthly payments totaling $4,000 per year for the first three years of their child’s life. Control participants will receive $20 per month, funds similar to what participants in basic, long-term research receive. Throughout this time, researchers will conduct rigorous assessments of home environments, parent and child stress, parent-child interactions, and child brain and cognitive development.
The goal of this ambitious undertaking, which aims to take place at four sites nationwide, is to collect enough data to examine both causality and the proximal pathways that may mediate the effects of income on cognitive development and subsequent achievement.
Collaborative, groundbreaking projects like this are desperately needed across the social sciences in order to effect high-impact, research-based change in the socioeconomic inequality that continues to plague our society.
Samantha A. Melvin is currently the manager of the Neurocognition, Early Experience, and Development (NEED) Lab at Columbia University, where she works with Dr. Kimberly Noble to examine the intersection of developmental psychology, neuroscience, and education in socioeconomic disparities research. She graduated from Wesleyan University in 2013 with a BA in cognitive psychology and a passion for social justice. She ultimately hopes to bridge the gap between research and practice by pursuing a PhD and by conducting policy-relevant research on language development, learning and education, and the environmental factors that influence these systems.
It seems that the wrong questions are being asked here. The general and vague terms of “poverty” and “economic injustice” have no real useful, operational value, or fundamental meaning in our thinking or research. Lack of money may be one proximal condition for inadequate development, but the more distal nuclear factors are being overlooked. From our knowledge of developmental psychology, we need to look at family of origin with the cognitions and values they instill, or fail to instill, in their children, that likely are behind the cognitive disparities we see. Begging the real questions, and accepting and relying on unexamined assumptions will not help us to benefit society with our psychology. We have seen since the 1960’s that merely giving money to people in need has done little, if anything, to truly help them. I suggest that fair minded and sincere psychologists should be rethinking their basic approach to solving this problem.
Sanford W. Bloom, Ph.D.