Saturday, March 7, 2015

If You Care About Children's Brains

It was a natural experiment: When the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians in North Carolina’s Great Smoky Mountains started a casino in 1996, they decided to give stipends to each enrolled member living on the reservation. By 2001, the stipends had reached $6,000, meaning that if a family had one adult and three kids as enrolled members, they got $24,000.

Before this time, half of the tribe's kids were living in poverty, in an area where 20 percent overall were in poverty. Epidemiologist Jane Costello, of Duke University, had been studying kids in the area (enrolled and not) for four years when the casino opened, and recognized that she could analyze the effect of cash payments on poor kids. She had data from before the payments, could collect data from after they started, and had a natural control group in the kids in the area who weren't part of the tribe.

Even she was surprised by the results, summarized in this excellent New York Times Opinionator story.

The poorest children tended to have the greatest risk of psychiatric disorders, including emotional and behavioral problems. But just four years after the supplements began, Professor Costello observed marked improvements among those who moved out of poverty. The frequency of behavioral problems declined by 40 percent, nearly reaching the risk of children who had never been poor. Already well-off Cherokee children, on the other hand, showed no improvement. The supplements seemed to benefit the poorest children most dramatically.

When Professor Costello published her first study, in 2003, the field of mental health remained on the fence over whether poverty caused psychiatric problems, or psychiatric problems led to poverty. So she was surprised by the results. Even she hadn’t expected the cash to make much difference. “The expectation is that social interventions have relatively small effects,” she told me. “This one had quite large effects.”

She and her colleagues kept following the children. Minor crimes committed by Cherokee youth declined. On-time high school graduation rates improved.
Kids who were the youngest when the money started coming in saw the biggest benefits. Teenagers were less affected, but still benefited some.
She’d started her study with three cohorts, ages 9, 11 and 13. When she caught up with them as 19- and 21-year-olds living on their own, she found that those who were youngest when the supplements began had benefited most. They were roughly one-third less likely to develop substance abuse and psychiatric problems in adulthood, compared with the oldest group of Cherokee children and with neighboring rural whites of the same age.

Cherokee children in the older cohorts, who were already 14 or 16 when the supplements began, on the other hand, didn’t show any improvements relative to rural whites. The extra cash evidently came too late to alter these older teenagers’ already-established trajectories.

What precisely did the income change? Ongoing interviews with both parents and children suggested one variable in particular. The money, which amounted to between one-third and one-quarter of poor families’ income at one point, seemed to improve parenting quality.
Which all goes to prove Matt Bruenig's recurring essays that cash payments to poor people would have big effects on human potential. And that not doing something like cash payments is actually toxic to children's brains.

Recently, a story from the environmental magazine Ensia has been showing up a lot in my Twitter feed. It's a summary of horrific research about the effects of synthetic hormones and toxic crap on the brains of young kids.

One day, a couple of those tweets appeared right next to another one about poverty and kids:

And I thought, why are environmentalists all so concerned about synthetic hormones, etc., but not about the toxic stress and nutritional deprivation of poverty? Those are clearly bad for kids' brain development. Another study cited in the Times story summarizes it like this:
By age 3, measures of vocabulary, working memory and executive function show an inverse relationship with the stressors experienced by parents.
If you want to have a system where only the fittest make it, then that's what we've made in America over the past three decades. If instead, you think that lots of people have potential but it needs just a little bit of nurturing to show up, there are alternatives that we're not trying.

Cash payments to low-income people work. We should try them (or increase them) if we're serious about educational outcomes and equality in this country.


A late addition: CNN recently ran its own story about the North Carolina Cherokee stipends. The writer discusses Matt Bruenig's work and his thoughts on how large payments to parents should be. It also included this quote from epidemiologist Costello: "Stop trying to micromanage the poor and dividing up the 'deserving poor' from the 'undeserving poor.' Just give them the money."

1 comment:

Nancy/BLissed-Out Grandma said...

Fascinating. As a society, we do like to hand out judgments along with, or instead of, financial help.