The science of self-perpetuating poverty

This essay from Christian Cooper in Nautilus is so, so good.  I’m disappointed I’ve only seen it shared by one person.  Really strikes me as a must-read.  Cooper summarizes a lot of the evidence from epigenetics of how poverty literally changes human biology in negative ways, which, of course, make it that much harder to escape from poverty.  In other words, poverty is like a disease.  And, of course, hits upon so many of the myths of the American dream.  Really good stuff.  A bit:

Now, new evidence is emerging suggesting the changes can go even deeper—to how our bodies assemble themselves, shifting the types of cells that they are made from, and maybe even how our genetic code is expressed, playing with it like a Rubik’s cube thrown into a running washing machine. If this science holds up, it means that poverty is more than just a socioeconomic condition. It is a collection of related symptoms that are preventable, treatable—and even inheritable. In other words, the effects of poverty begin to look very much like the symptoms of a disease…

This science challenges us to re-evaluate a cornerstone of American mythology, and of our social policies for the poor: the bootstrap. The story of the self-made, inspirational individual transcending his or her circumstances by sweat and hard work. A pillar of the framework of meritocracy, where rewards are supposedly justly distributed to those who deserve them most.

What kind of a bootstrap or merit-based game can we be left with if poverty cripples the contestants? Especially if it has intergenerational effects? The uglier converse of the bootstrap hypothesis—that those who fail to transcend their circumstances deserve them—makes even less sense in the face of the grim biology of poverty. When the firing gun goes off, the poor are well behind the start line. Despite my success, I certainly was. [emphases mine]

Why do so few make it out of poverty? I can tell you from experience it is not because some have more merit than others. It is because being poor is a high-risk gamble. The asymmetry of outcomes for the poor is so enormous because it is so expensive to be poor. Imagine losing a job because your phone was cut off, or blowing off an exam because you spent the day in the ER dealing with something that preventative care would have avoided completely. Something as simple as that can spark a spiral of adversity almost impossible to recover from. The reality is that when you’re poor, if you make one mistake, you’re done. Everything becomes a sudden-death gamble.

Now imagine that, on top of that, your brain is wired to multiply the subjective experience of stress by 10. The result is a profound focus on short-term thinking. To those outsiders who, by fortune of birth, have never known the calculus of poverty, the poor seem to make sub-optimal decisions time and time again. But the choices made by the poor are supremely rational choices under the circumstances. Pondering optimal, long-term decisions is a liability when you have 48 hours of food left. Stress takes on a whole new meaning—and try as you might, it’s hard to shake.

The standard American myth of meritocracy misinterprets personal narratives like mine. The accumulated social capital of American institutions—stable transfer of power, rule of law, and entrepreneurship—certainly create economic miracles every day. But these institutions are far more suited to exponentially growing capital where it already exists, rather than creating new capital where society needs it.

Cooper concludes by briefly discussing at least some of the policy implications:

We should leverage the lessons of the science of poverty rather than ignore them. Poverty alleviation programs like conditional cash transfers, for example, reward parents or caregivers with direct payment for taking actions, like ensuring school attendance or arranging for preventative care. They encourage stress alleviation and long-term planning that is far upstream of doing well on an exam—they provide exactly the kind of certainty that the poverty-stricken brain needs. In a paper released in June of 2009, Lia Fernald and Megan Gunnar showed that such programs lowered salivary cortisol levels and reduced lifetime risk for a range of mental and physical disorders.12 There should be more programs like these: For example so-called whole-child policies, which focus on the long-term development of children starting from birth while reducing uncertainty during the first three years of childhood development.

Now, now all of what Cooper relies upon is definitive science at this point, but it is highly suggestive.  And any open-minded, empirically-minded person should be well aware of the psychological and sociological (if not biological) ways in which poverty is clearly self-perpetuating through generations.  It is high past time to take these insights seriously and think more deeply and comprehensively about what public policies can best reduce and mitigate poverty.

One thing I can absolutely tell you– demanding that the poor simply pull themselves up by their bootstraps and pulling away needed social welfare programs as “a hammock” are sure as hell not part of the solution.

Infographic of the day

Where the energy jobs are, via NYT story:

Amazing the power that coal holds in symbolic impact.  Especially on Trump.


What it takes for kids to get ahead

Yesterday’s post reminded me of this terrific Thomas Edsall column from about a month ago that I had meant to share.  It’s about the role of non-cognitive skills in how children get ahead.  One of my favorite topics ever since reading How Children Succeed.  (Seriously, read it).  Edsall:

In a 2014 paper, “The Character Factor: Measures and Impact of Drive and Prudence,” Reeves and two co-authors, Kimberly Howard and Joanna Venator, focus on what they call “performance character strengths” and the crucial role played by noncognitive skills in educational attainment, employment and earned income. These character strengths — “perseverance, industriousness, grit, resilience, curiosity, application” and “self-control, future orientation, self-discipline, impulse control, delay of gratification” — make significant contributions to success in adulthood and upward mobility…

Paul Tough, a writer heavily influenced by Heckman’s work, noted last year in an essay in the Atlantic, “How Kids Learn Resilience,” that research reveals that “students will be more likely to display these positive academic habits when they are in an environment where they feel a sense of belonging, independence, and growth” and where they “experience relatedness, autonomy, and competence.”

This kind of environment is difficult to replicate in neighborhoods of concentrated poverty. Instead, Tough writes, many of the kids brought up in these desolate areas have developed “a hyperactive fight-or-flight mechanism,” which conveys the warning

at car-alarm volume: I don’t belong here. This is enemy territory. Everyone in this school is out to get me. Add to this the fact that many children raised in adversity, by the time they get to middle or high school, are significantly behind their peers academically and disproportionately likely to have a history of confrontations with school administrators.

The result is a vicious circle: family disruption perpetuates disadvantage by creating barriers to the development of cognitive and noncognitive skills, which in turn sharply reduces access to college. The lack of higher education decreases life chances, including the likelihood of achieving adequate material resources and a stable family structure for the next generation…

What is to be made of all these findings?

First, the spectrum of noncognitive skills and character strengths are a major factor in American class stratification. Whether these factors are more or less important than extrinsic forces like globalization, automation and declining unionization remains unclear, but changing family structures are evidently leaving millions of men and women ill-equipped to ascend the socioeconomic ladder.

Second, neither religious leaders nor practicing politicians nor government employees have found the levers that actually make disadvantaged families more durable or functional. As a corollary, the failure of government efforts to affect or slow down negative developments has left an opening for conservatives to argue that government interventions make things worse.

For liberals and the Democratic Party, the continued failure of government initiatives to achieve measurable gains in the acquisition of valuable noncognitive skills by disadvantaged youngsters constitutes a major liability.

So, here’s the damn agenda.. figure out what policies and programs (and there’s increasing evidence and research on the matter) best promote non-cognitive skills (and if they are not government programs, figure out how to encourage them through public policy) and advocate like hell for these policies.



Perverse incentives to the left; greed to the right. Stuck in the middle with American health care

love Elisabeth Rosenthal’s  2013 NYT series on the high cost of American health care and have been assigning portions of it to my classes for years (including this semester).

So, when I learned she had written a new book about the American health care system, I was all over it and ordered it the day it was published and finished it in less than a week (that’s definitely fast for me– too much time with the internet, not enough with books).

The book is terrific.  I literally cannot recommend it highly enough.  Even if you think you are not interested in health care policy, chances are you’ve had plenty of interactions with our medical establishment and would be fascinated to learn just how perverse so many of the incentives are.   I’ve been a health care policy junkie for at least a decade and I still learned a lot that was new to me.  To some degree, what I learned was just how absurdly depraved and money-hungry the whole system has become.  In many ways, we are looking at a medical system of capitalism amok.  So many people are looking to monetize every last dollar off of human sickness and suffering.  There’s lots and lots of good people who just want to help, but they have been caught up into a perverse and greedy system where, often just practicing medicine, means partaking in a series of sleazy and ethically dubious practices and organizations that are looking to squeeze every last dollar out of patients and the government (i.e., all of us).  And it’s working.  And, as I’ve written time after time, this is largely a matter of policy choice.  Political Scientist Jacob Hacker sums it up quite nicely in his NYT review of the book:

The difference between the United States and other countries isn’t the role of insurance; it’s the role of government. More specifically, it’s the way in which those who benefit from America’s dysfunctional market have mobilized to use government to protect their earnings and profits. In every country where people have access to sophisticated medical care, they must rely heavily on the clinical expertise of providers and the financial protections of insurance, which, in turn, creates the opportunity for runaway costs. But in every other rich country, the government not only provides coverage to all citizens; it also provides strong counterpressure to those who seek to use their inherent market power to raise prices or deliver lucrative but unnecessary services — typically in the form of hard limits on how much health care providers can charge. [emphasis mine]

In the United States, such counterpressure has been headed off again and again. The industry and its elected allies have happily supported giveaways to the medical sector. But anything more, they insist, will kill the market. Although this claim is in conflict with the evidence, it is consistent with the goal of maximum rewards to (and donations from) the industry.

There’s literally dozens of examples from the book that left me open-mouthed that people were able to get away with such greed and perversity, supposedly in the service of human health.  One that really stuck out though, is that of Duexis.  It’s literally a pill that’s just ibuprofen and famotidine.  You can dose yourself with those two for literally pennies a day.  Yet somehow– only in America, of course– they manage to charge $1500 a month for it and get doctors to prescribe it and insurance companies to pay for it.  Ugh.  If I ever had a doctor prescribe something like this to me, I would find a new doctor the next day.

Now, imagine a book full of other such shocking and disturbing examples.  Not exactly fun to read, but totally engaging, and disturbing.  And, also designed to be useful for helping readers navigate this giant mess with their own health care needs.  Or, at least listen to the terrific Fresh Air interview.

Photo of the day

In case you haven’t seen this awesome viral image of earth viewed through Saturn’s rings:


NASA’s Cassini spacecraft captured this view of planet Earth as a point of light between the icy rings of Saturn NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

Environmental polarization

From Pew fact tank.  This is just sad:

Basically, what were modest differences between Democrats and Republicans on the environment have grown into substantial ones.  And most of this has been driven by the Republican Party increasingly subscribing to the view “screw the environment” as the party line.  Ugh.

Who benefits from child care? Moms and boys (and society)

Okay, daughters, too, but one of the interesting findings of research into this area is that boys benefit more than girls.  Lots of interesting stuff in this Upshot piece from Claire Cain Miller:

Helping parents pay for that care would be expensive for society, too. Yet recent studies show that of any policy aimed to help struggling families, aid for high-quality care has the biggest economic payoff for parents and their children — and even their grandchildren. It has the biggest positive effect on women’s employment and pay. It’s especially helpful for low-income families, because it can propel generations of children toward increased earnings, better jobs, improved health, more education and decreased criminal activity as adults. [emphasis mine]

Damn.  That’s an impressive list.  What a tremendous potential investment for government to make.  Alas, we wouldn’t want to take women away from their “essential” role or fail to ignore the fact that lots of women need to work for simple economic reasons.

For a country that struggles far too much with inter-generational mobility, the latest research should provide plenty of incentive:

A powerful new study — which demonstrated long-term results by following children from birth until age 35 — found that high-quality care during the earliest years can influence whether both mothers and children born into disadvantage lead more successful lives. The study was led by James J. Heckman, a Nobel laureate economist at the University of Chicago.

“They’re engaged more in the work force, they’re now active participants of society, they’re more educated, they have higher skills,” Mr. Heckman said. “So what we’ve done is promoted mobility across generations.”

And, it really is amazing how profound the impact is on males:

When the boys reached age 30, they earned an average of $19,800 more a year than those in the control group and had half a year more education. (The small sample size — 37 boys in the programs who stayed in the study — means the difference was not very precisely estimated.) When the girls reached 30, they had two more years of education and earned about $2,500 more, the study found.

In their mid-30s, men who attended the program were 33 percent less likely to be drug users, had fewer misdemeanor arrests and were less likely to have high blood pressure.

The conclusion that boys benefited more than girls meshes with other research findings that boys are more sensitive to disadvantage and responsive to intervention.

And dollars and cents– a hell of an investment:

The program was expensive — $18,514 per student a year — but after calculating effects like the cost to society of unemployment, crime and poor health, the researchers concluded that it returned $7.30 for every dollar spent. In addition to Mr. Heckman, the researchers were Jorge Luis García of the University of Chicago and Duncan Ermini Leaf and María José Prados of the University of Southern California.

The article mentions Ivanka Trump championing programs like this.  Encouraging, I guess.  But talk to me when Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell realize this is a far better use of taxpayer dollars than tax cuts for rich people.

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