Are we back to the “culture of poverty” again?

Poverty is ruining children’s brains.

At least that’s the implication of Jonathan Cohn’s article, which is meant as a summary of the implications of neuroscience for developing anti-poverty social policies. Weirdly, though, he’s never totally clear about what “poverty” means, which leads him to conflate a host of radically different problems in a way that pathologizes poverty.

The article starts with a striking example of neglect: state-run orphanages in Romania.

It was ten years after the fall of the Communist dictator Nicolae Ceauşescu, whose scheme for increasing the country’s population through bans on birth control and abortion had filled state-run institutions with children their parents couldn’t support […]But ten years later, the new government […] was still warehousing at least 60,000 kids, some of them born after the old regime’s fall, in facilities where many received almost no meaningful human interaction.

Unsurprisingly, many of these children suffer from severe cognitive and emotional problems. Research conducted on the children has suggested this extreme form of neglect even shows up at the sub-cellular level, very likely hampering brain development in early childhood. It is truly a tragic situation.

But this is where the article gets weird.

Cohn’s discussion shifts immediately from Romanian orphans into…

APPROXIMATELY SEVEN MILLION American infants, toddlers, and preschoolers get care from somebody other than a relative, whether through organized day care centers or more informal arrangements […]And much of that care is not very good.

Huh. I knew that the day care situation in the US wasn’t great. But I didn’t realize it was quite on the scale of a post-socialist Romanian orphanage. Good lord. But then…

Of course, children in substandard day care are not the only children at risk in the United States. There are also hundreds of thousands of babies born each year to American teenagers, about 60 percent of them poor. The vast majority of teen mothers are unmarried when they give birth, and frequently lack either family support or the financial resources to find capable outside help.

Ok, hold up. Let’s make a little equation to clarify the connections Cohn is making here.

Romanian orphanage = US non-relative caregivers = “not very good” day care = poor unmarried teenage mother

The next sentence makes it clear:

Then there are the children who begin their lives in traumatic circumstances for other reasons—because they have a parent with clinical depression, or they witness violence in the home. (Emphasis added.)

In other words, being born to an unmarried teen is a “trauma” akin to that of witnessing domestic violence or growing up in a Romanian orphanage. And that’s what I mean by “pathologizing poverty.”

Now, I don’t mean to deride Cohn for tackling poverty and its social effects. The article’s basic conclusion—that it would be worthwhile to fund more social support services for poor families—isn’t a terrible idea.

But there are a few too many gaps between the research cited and the proposed target population of these policies—and the implication that poor mothers under the age of 20 are traumatizing their children is a dangerous kind of exaggeration.

Furthermore, placing this under the umbrella of “problems caused by poverty” and treating those problems as primarily issues of ignorance, to be solved by counseling by experts, means we’re not looking for connections to broader social problems.

It’s great to offer counseling and training to help new mothers (those who want to and are able!) learn how to breastfeed. But there’s still a lot of work to be done to make room in public and in the workplace for breastfeeding mothers.

Helping new parents develop strategies for childcare and managing their own stress is fantastic. But child abuse isn’t only committed by poor parents.

And to suggest that the “cycle of poverty” is has something to do with early childhood brain development is intriguing. But in the midst of a major recession, and after decades of income stagnation and even decline for the middle and lower classes, isn’t that a tiny bit myopic?


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