In the name of science

Posted: 5 October 2015 in Uncategorized
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Triff_Brain_MRI

There’s no doubt Kimberly G. Noble and her team of neuroscientists are genuinely concerned about the effects of poverty on children’s brains—and not for nefarious purposes.

Not surprisingly, our findings made many people uncomfortable. Some feared the study would be used to reinforce the notion that people remain in poverty because they are less capable than those with higher incomes.

As neuroscientists, we interpret the results very differently. We know that the brain is most malleable in the early years of life and that experiences during that time have lifelong effects on the mind. Work by social scientists such as Sendhil Mullainathan at Harvard University and Eldar Shafir at Princeton University has shown that poverty depletes parents’ cognitive resources, leaving less capacity for making everyday decisions about parenting. These parents are also at far greater risk for depression and anxiety — poverty’s “mental tax.” All of this has important implications for children.

When parents are distracted or depressed, family life is likely to be characterized by conflict and emotional withdrawal rather than nurturing and supportive relationships with children. Parents don’t talk and read to their kids as often and make less eye contact with them. This accumulation of stress in children’s lives has cascading effects on brain systems critical to learning, remembering and reasoning.

As a society we cannot stand by when millions of children are at risk for not reaching their full cognitive and academic potential.

But then, in the name of science (in particular, in the name of randomized trials), here’s what they propose:

That’s why I am part of a team of social scientists and neuroscientists planning a large clinical trial in which 1,000 low-income mothers will be randomly assigned to receive either a large ($333) or small ($20) monthly income supplement for the first three years of their children’s lives. Periodic assessments of the children and their mothers will enable us to estimate the impact of these cash supplements on children’s cognitive, emotional and brain development, as well as the effect on family functioning. . .

The political battles for major expansion of these types of programs are unlikely to be won until we can provide hard scientific proof of their effectiveness. Until then, we need to do all we can to support policies that offer our most vulnerable children the best chance of reaching their full potential.

I understand the desire to want to be able to produce and use “hard” numbers to intervene in public debate. I do it all the time on this blog.

However, we need to be concerned about attempts to use poor people—first in Third World countries, and now in the United States—as guinea pigs “to estimate the impact of these cash supplements on children’s cognitive, emotional and brain development, as well as the effect on family functioning.”

We can well imagine what the reaction would be if, in the name of science, we devised a large clinical trial in which 1,000 high-income mothers were randomly assigned to a large (say, $10,000) or small (say, $1,000) monthly income deduction in order to estimate the impact of these cash deductions on children’s cognitive, emotional and brain development, as well as the effect on family functioning.

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