Will treating poverty reshape a childs brain?

The Big Story


What does it mean to grow up for that sounded like a philosophical question? I didn't mean it that way. It's a real. How does a child's life change when they spend their formative years never having enough money living below the poverty line in some cases their family barely making it paycheck to paycheck? What don't those kids do because of that? What hurdles as a place in their path? How does it affect them? Down the road does the impact of poverty literally alter their brains. And if that's the case how can we change that a simple yep. Profound experiment aims to answer that question and perhaps even offer a controversial but effective cure for the damage. That poverty does to a child. What is that cure? While what do you think the cure for poverty is MHM Jordan Heath. Rawlings this is the big story. Shannon proud foot is a writer at Maclean's one of our favorite guests. Hope Shanna I don't either. Why don't you start by kind of level setting for us and in terms of research that has been done? What do we know about children who grow up in poverty? Okay okay so what has been known for years in all kinds of dimensions. Is that kids who grew up in poverty struggle across sort of staunching array of things. You know they tend to be physically smaller smaller. They tend to get sick more often. But for the purposes of this study the ones were most interested in are there's all kinds of of cognitive academic disadvantages. They have so that we know. Oh in very broad global ways. That kids who grew up in poverty tend to do worse in school than kids. Who Grow up more well off They have lower graduation rates. Their grades aren't as good. They have have less likelihood of going on to post secondary. But what was not known until sort of astonishingly recently is why I kinda Kinda came to think of the analogy as as you. You know we knew that that kids who grew up poor would kind of emerge from the woods when they finished childhood different point than richer kids but nobody had thought to look at the path of how they got there. Because there's different ways to have poor academic outcomes right which of their skills were lagging. What was what was going on there? And so one of the principal investigators on this new new study that I've written about Kimberly Noble who works at Columbia University. Her huge splash. She made early in her career. She's a neuroscientist was looking added. Exactly why it is. That kids who grow up poor tend to do more poorly in school and and and cognitively I'm so sh- she sort of unpacked the specific skills the specific regions of the brain the the wise in house of how poverty affects how kids process information and achieve academically later in their lives. And what does she learn so the big takeaway is that Kids who grew up poor tend to lag in language skills like reading and vocabulary and also in sort of what we might think of self restraint skill so the ability to ignore distractions to concentrate working memory that kind of stuff and then subsequently Noble Co authored authored. A big paper in two thousand fifteen. That made a huge splash again. In this area of academic research where they scan the brains of just over a thousand kids and teens and the average sort of the size of their brains they were looking at primarily. What's called the corneal surface area? So this is the the outer wrinkly part of the brain. It does a lot of the heavy lifting cognitively early and when they sort of correlated different different aspects of these kids profiles the one thing they found that was consistently associated with the size as of the coral surface area on the brain was family income so that raises all kinds of interesting questions about what's going on there and not immediately makes the leap to me. It's so compelling because it makes the leap from okay. There are different skills or different strengths. That kids were better off. You know have that kids who are poor. Don't but it's physically. We possibly reshaping their brains or at least associated with a different shape and size to their brains which is quite profound. It's something that you would just never expect to see proven. You might see the results of it but to prove that correlation is quite startling right and so using the word correlation Asian here is important because what Nobles Research and other people who've been working in this area consistently over the last couple of decades has shown is that we know that poverty is associated with all all these negative outcomes. That's correlation what nobody has been able to show is causation. Has What you could do is pull that apart and say okay but is it really. The fact that these kids are poorer that their brains are smaller. They have a harder time with these skills or is it that poor families are more likely to be in a single parent situation or have substance abuse or live in neighborhoods. That are kind of scary very like you just can't and scientifically say that it's the poverty that's causing this. You can only say that the poverty sort of shows us that this is occurring. So that's where this is new unbelievably ambitious but also incredibly simple and elegant study comes in that started about a year ago it will be ongoing for the next several years before we talk about that. Study because we're GONNA spend a lot of time on that. You mentioned that we tend to think and think of and treat the various disadvantageous effects of poverty offers. You know the the school skills that these kids can struggle within. What have we traditionally done to help them? When when those difficulties manifest yes there's sort of different steps along on the way where you could intervene if you start to notice that a child in grade one is struggling in school? And you know. They come from a disadvantaged family background where there's all kinds of ways you can kick in tutoring. You can have them go to special classes for extra support. You can make sure that there's an individual learning plan in place but those things tend to be a really ambitious that costs a lot of money either very time intensive and they happen quite late in the process because research shows that kids you know from from the age of two or even earlier you can already see the effects of poverty so if you're not able to identify the kind of downstream effects the symptoms if you will until they're in school and then try to sort of intervene and turn back the clock. Obviously that's a much much more difficult proposition. If you think about kids growing up in poverty have certain life experiences that appear to affect their brains in certain ways that then affects their learning potential potential. Well depending on where you intervene in that sort of stream of cascading effects it might be a bit easier. What if you could inoculate the kids against that whole all domino effect starting in the first place? It's almost like rather than intervening after someone has fallen ill with the disease in his experiencing symptoms. Would if you gave them a vaccine that prevented I'm from ever getting the disease in the first place. Now I'm certainly. This is just a creative analogy. I'm using calling poverty or its effects a disease but it sort of suggests that if the study study is born out there may be a more elegant more efficient possibly even simpler more effective way to kind of intervene earlier in the process before or the negative effects of already kicked in. And then you're trying to undo them so explain the study now and what it does. What is I guess it's called babies first years. Yeah babies first year so it's hugely ambitious. Seventeen million dollars in public and private funding very heavy hitting academic experts from across the US primarily so they're six principal investigators instigators who are sort of the top in their field at different institutions in different areas of expertise you have neuroscience economics sociology education. Things like that at what they did is they went to Maternity wards in four cities so they picked out New Orleans. Minneapolis Saint Paul New York City and Omaha and they deliberately picked cities cities where they would get kind of a nice cross range of rural versus urban different demographic make-up's and they recruited one thousand mothers within days of having their babies so they recruited created the right from the hospital to enroll in this study and there is effectively again because they're trying to establish causation. There's effectively a placebo group or control group and a treatment group and so all of the MOMS who are enrolled in the study will receive a debit card and every month money will be loaded onto that debit card. So sixty percent of the MOMS will receive. What's called a nominal amount of money? Twenty bucks so enough to be worth their while to stay in the study but not enough to really make a huge difference and that's essentially the placebo where you're giving them money. You're giving giving them a debit card. You're keeping them in the study and keep tabs on them and their kids but the amount of money is not really a difference making amount and forty percent of the MOMS in the study those in the quote unquote treatment in group are going to receive three hundred thirty three dollars a month. So that adds up to four thousand dollars a year which depending on your income bracket may or may not seem like a lot of money but all of the MOMS in this study are at or below the poverty line and so the idea is that because the families the MOMS and kids in this study are randomized into one group or the other? They're it just kinda drawn by a computer. If at the end of the study there are differences between the group that got more money in the group that got less then you can scientifically solidly say that. It's because of the money honey. That is the difference between the two and that would finally allow them to establish causation as opposed to just correlation in terms of poverty and all these negative in outcomes for kids. Well how will the study proceed. And how will they attempt to kind of measure this along the way. They've already started with what they call through to the year. One so what. The idea is that they will check in with the the kids and MOMS around the kids first birthday second birthday. Third Birthday the study is funded up to that point so far but they're now applying for continuous funding and there is is a pretty good precedent of really ambitious. Recall Longitudinal Studies that follow people over time being extended so you can easily imagine that maybe the study won't end when these kids are three. It might follow them until they're five until ten until they're twenty. There's fascinating possibilities there. But they will bring them into the lab and obviously the kids would be turning one to three on a rolling basis because the mom's been recruited all year. They'll do some brain scans of the kids. They'll talk to the moms about sort of how things are for them. On a day to day basis it will take a hair sample of the MOMS which allows them to measure stress through cortisol levels built a video of the moms playing with their kids so that allows them to kind of code for look at the quality of interaction between the parents and the kids and sort of how they're how they're mood is with each other and eventually down the road as the kids get a little older closer to three they will do more. Ambitious brain scans functional. MRI To show them better sort of specifically how the different areas of the brain are working size of the different areas and to really unpack sort of the differences that may emerge because they they don't know the end the research researchers very open about that. We can talk about what they think might happen. But they really don't know and either way the study should come out with a pretty fascinating fascinating robust answer about would if the real problem with an he's problem in quotes but if the real problem with poor families or four families is chess money and what if you just give the money like what if you don't worry about stuff like do. They have enough books in their house. Other kids enrolled in good preschool programs. You know do. The parents have a harmonious oneal relationship. Would have you just give them a chunk of money. Does that change everything a little bit. It's it's kind of has amazing possible implications or the answer might aby. No you know what it doesn't change that much. There is too much stress in the lives of these families. There are too many factors going on that money. Just can't cancel out so either wait you sort of end up with a really interesting answer will not put too fine a point on it but I can imagine that if this study did prove causation. Shen and did prove that look. It's not any of these other things it's just money that would really blow up some of the stigmas that are attached to kids in poverty. Yeah I mean there. There are obvious quite deep political implications here existential implications. You Know People's ideas about why some people have more. Some people have lost their ideas about how we as a society should help people or how much people should bootstrap themselves up. Those are pretty deeply held things right. Those are sort of the maybe the most hot metrics of by which we sort of see political divisiveness right now. So yeah I mean you're not going to convert vert everyone but it's always an interesting thing to have a solid scientific answer. You can point to know. The researchers are very careful to say they're not suggesting this panacea. They're not saying we should get rid of of all these ambitious. You know preschool improvement programs or parenting classes or anything like that and just give us families envelopes of cash. It's more that this is an interesting idea. That's worth testing. That hasn't been tested because there have been decades of testing that have gone on around. You know preschool programs parenting all that other stuff so we should road test this one too and no. It is a useful tool to have in the toolbox but absolutely if the answer comes back that guess what if you give poor families four thousand bucks a year. It improves a bunch which of things by enough to matter. Then that might suggest that maybe the only problem with those Pam families was that they were poor and if you give them a little leg up on the poverty already they can sort of solve all the other stuff themselves. There's also all kinds of other expectations baked into this about how poor people spend money and musicians about finances. And I when I asked I asked Kimberly Noble. Do you get us by people. Like what if the mom spend the money on crappy stuff like what if they make poor decisions in there you know buying liquor Acre cigarettes or whatever and she laughed and said we get that question all the time. It's one of the first things they get us because there's no strings attached to this money but the answer is that that just it doesn't really happen. They did a small pilot. Study to sort of test the feasibility of the debit card thing and out of I think it was eleven hundred transactions. Exactly three occurred at stores that could be considered liquor stores.

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