Economic mobility, brain science, and systems of support

Last week Good Shepherd’s (@GoodAdvocacy) Financial Security Specialist, Tanya Corrie (@TanyaCorrie), attended a major gathering of anti-poverty advocates and services in Boston. Run by Empath (@DisruptPoverty), an organisation that has developed a unique approach to services, research, and advocacy, the conference explored new frontiers in disrupting inter-generational disadvantage, and of which Good Shepherd is a member. Here, Tanya highlights how services can use the latest brain science on stress and trauma in both delivering services and influencing systemic change.

Empath’s ‘Disrupting Poverty Conference’ brings researchers, practitioners and policy makers (or ‘disruptors’) together to share information and develop new ideas on how to eliminate poverty. The discussions have included the latest innovations in ‘brain science’ which describe the very physical and real impacts that poverty, trauma and toxic stress have on the development of the brain. It outlines how high levels of stress greatly impact on executive functioning and hence the capacity to make long term plans, to be mentally flexible, and retain information. In order to disrupt intergenerational poverty we must be aware of the impact poverty has on children’s brains in particular, and work with families and children to help break this cycle.

Interestingly – perhaps unsurprisingly – many of the systems and programs we have in place to support people who have experienced trauma can place a series of ‘cognitive burdens’ in the way, further impacting on a person’s executive functioning. Mark Greenburg, Acting Assistant Secretary for the United States Department of Health and Human Services, remarked in his keynote address that public policy should reduce the stressors that impact the lives of people experiencing poverty and communities. That is if we (as poverty disruptors) are truly to enable economic mobility for low income people, we need to ensure that we do not become part of the systems and procedures that continue to hinder cognitive function.

There are a range of impressive and innovative programs being shared which work to do just this. Empath’s Economic Mobility Pathways program has had great success with participants achieving economic mobility. They do this using their ‘Bridge to Self-Sufficiency’ (the Bridge) which outlines a range of supports necessary for full participation: Family Stability, Wellbeing, Education and Training, Financial Management, Employment and Career Management. The program utilises coaching principles to enable participants to set goals. The participant is the expert in their own lives and is the driver of the outcomes they are seeking.

In a range of early learning settings, educators who are trained in the various pillars of the Bridge are able to support families in all areas of their lives that impact upon their health and educational outcomes. Through working with children in these critical and formative years, the impacts of poverty on their development can potentially be ameliorated. Working with children means working with their families. Their programs are offered where people are at – both physical location as well as their circumstances.

It can be a challenge for many to change the way they work. That is understandable as we operate in an environment of constant change; what once was old is new again.

However, often the information and programs that participants actually want is different to what we expect. Surveying done by Children Homes Society in Washington indicated that the key concern for practitioners in implementing the Bridge model, for example, is that participants would feel their privacy was being impeded and that there are too many questions involved. Primarily, they were concerned that participants would not want to talk about their financial situation, as that was considered private and not the practitioner’s business. However, when participants themselves were surveyed on which aspects of the Bridge they would most like information on, the Financial Management pillar was the most popular.

However, as effective as many of these interventions are, it is also critical to be mindful of the many systemic and cultural issues that entrench intergenerational poverty – lack of access to jobs, implicit bias and racism to name just a few. As Dr. David Williams from Harvard University poignantly outlined in the lunchtime plenary, we are all socialised to have a certain bias to different groups. These biases become institutionalised. Economic mobility may be possible for those groups who are more likely to experience this discrimination, with the right support, but place still matters, and race still matters. So mobilisation for structural change is also needed.

These principles should be foundational when we create programs; they can also be referenced during the policy formation process.  We have written about this previously, covering such topics as the importance of well-being, how policy can hinder self-efficacy, and how the carrot-stick dichotomy does so much damage.

Posted by @MsSophieRae.