A child’s mind is a terrible thing to subject to poverty and inequality

Posted: 13 July 2017 in Uncategorized
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We’ve long known there is a strong correlation between growing up in poverty and low academic achievement. Thus, for example, children living in poverty tend to have lower scores on standardized tests, lower grades, and are less likely to graduate from high school or go on to college.

Now we’re learning that that there is a correlation between poverty and children’s actual brain development.

According to Mike Mariani, the results of studying the “neurocognitive profile” of socioeconomic status and the developing brain are startling. For example, according to one study, kids from poorer, less-educated families tended to have thinner subregions of the prefrontal cortex—a part of the brain strongly associated with executive functioning—than better-off kids. Moreover, according to the data from another study:

small increases in family income had a much larger impact on the brains of the poorest children than similar increases among wealthier children. And [Kimberly] Noble’s data also suggested that when a family falls below a certain basic level of income, brain growth drops off precipitously. Children from families making less than $25,000 suffered the most, with 6 percent less brain surface area than peers in families making $150,000 or more.

Noble is one of the pioneers in this area and, in order to go beyond correlation to causality, she’s now proposing a randomized controlled trial of giving some mothers a $333 monthly income supplement or others a $20 monthly income supplement.

I am all in favor of giving cash to members of poor households—as against, for example, taking over poor people’s lives by using brain science to promote more effective “executive function skills” such as “impulse control” and “mental flexibility” of the sort proposed by the Crittenton Women’s Union (pdf).

However, as I see it, there are two problems inherent in the way these new poverty-brain trials are proceeding.

First, the trial that Noble proposes is another instance of the kind of work we’re now seeing in development economics (associated especially with Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo), which conducts experiments on poor people. One “treatment” group is assigned randomly to receive an intervention, and the other is randomized to receive the “control” experience, enabling the investigators to assess the impact of one intervention or another—in this case, on brain development. In other words, poor people are being used as human guinea pigs to conduct scientific experiments.

What’s the alternative? Set up programs, with the participation of poor people, to analyze the causes and consequences of poverty and identify changes that need to be made in the system in order to end existing poverty and prevent its recurrence in the future.

Second, the focus is on the brains of poor children, which in Noble’s language are “at much greater risk of not going through the paces of normal development to eventually become the three-pound wonder able to perform intellectual feats, whether composing symphonies or solving differential equations.”

What about the brains of rich children—why are they presumed to go through “the paces of normal development”? I’m thinking, for example, of the new psychological research on the “pathologies of the rich,” which involves studies of “social class as culture” and “sharing the marbles.” And, of course, there’s the infamous 2013 manslaughter trial of Ethan Couch, whose defense included a witness saying the teen was a product of “profoundly dysfunctional” parents who gave him too much and never taught him the consequences of his actions.

The issue here is not just the continued existence of obscene poverty, but also grotesque levels of inequality—which affect both poor and rich children, albeit in different ways. In my view, we need to be worried about an economic and social system that generates extreme levels of both poverty and inequality and that alters the brains of all children.

There’s nothing normal not just about the minds of children who are born into such a system, but the system itself.

  1. mjlovas says:

    I would have to have more than one lifetime to deal with all the bullshit that is out there. So, thank you David for your work.
    ( I am , however, still smarting from your —here I paraphrase—remark that I should go read Rorty when I raised questions about your metaphysics. I once owned the book (Phil. and the Mirror, and read it when it first came out. But these days I operate in a context far removed from the generous leisure tenured academics enjoy. I am not in a position to re-read it and tell you where I think the errors ate— though nothin you have ever written has convinced me to accept your metaphysical presuppositions. I do think you confuse metaphysical realism with the scientistic version advocated by your academic opponents. A robust metaphysical realism is compatible with a deep tolerance of many perspectives, stories, and multiple ways of getting at a complex reality. I cannot see that it requires, for example, denying that meaning is always lost when going from one language to another.. It is just one particular (cramped) version of realist metaphysics you are reacting to.
    I am actually inclined to say: if you cannot produce something like a thumbnail sketch of what’s so insightful in Rorty, then you are just hand-waving. Or perhaps your talents (which I do respect) do not lie in the region of the construction of metaphysical theories…?

  2. mjlovas says:

    Just to reinforce my point that the metaphysics of the neoclassical cannot and should not be identified with Metaphysical Realism, as if it gave the view its ultimate formulation— consider a paper of Ben Fine’s in which he accused the mainstream of grotesque mathematical naivete— that fundamental contradiction dogged the mainstream— “The general impossibility of Neoclassical Economics”— a paper which I have not finished..?

  3. mjlovas says:

    please delete question mark above

  4. David F. Ruccio says:

    Dear Mark, I’m not sure why this issue of epistemology has come up again. Perhaps you can explain to me what you mean by metaphysical realism. If it’s merely the idea that “things”—natural and social—exist independently of our thoughts about them or our perceptions of them, then I have no problem. Sure they do, at least according to the position I hold to in epistemology. But, then I immediately want to say, our knowledge of those “things”—which ones exist, how they behave, etc.—depends on the conceptual schemes we use to classify them, interpret their behavior, and so on. And in economics‚ as with other social and for that matter natural sciences, we hold different theories about those “things,” about what exists outside of thought. To use Rorty, our knowledges aren’t and can’t be mirrors of nature. Or, in Althusser’s language, we produce different “thought-concretes” about the “concrete real” that exists outside of thought.

  5. […] different dimensions of the relationship between health and economic inequality on this blog—from children’s brain development to car […]

  6. […] But what about the content of their work? I’ve discussed the work of Duflo and Banerjee on numerous occasions on this blog (e.g., here, here, and here). […]

  7. […] But what about the content of their work? I’ve discussed the work of Duflo and Banerjee on numerous occasions on this blog (e.g., here, here, and here). […]

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