Economic Development

Rethinking Poverty

Recent discoveries in brain science shed light on what holds the poor back—and on how to help them get ahead.


(Illustration by Anna Parini) 

Margaret grew up in the Patterson Way Apartments, a notorious drug-infested public housing development in South Boston. By the time she was 16, both her mother and her father had died, and her guardian, an older brother, was selling crack cocaine out of their apartment. Nine years later, he too had died, and another brother had become a drug addict. Only she and one remaining brother missed a similar fate.

“Back then,” Margaret has written in an unpublished memoir, “you would find syringes everywhere in my neighborhood, from the common hallways to the rooftops of our buildings…. That’s when I noticed the deals that the neighbors were making and the constant presence of strangers in [our] hallway…. I remember thinking, ‘How am I going to make this better?’” (Margaret is not her real name.)

In 2009, Margaret enrolled in Career Family Opportunity (CFO), a program offered by Crittenton Women’s Union (CWU). At that time, she had no education beyond high school and was a 30-year-old unemployed, unmarried mother with a limited work history. For her entire life, she had lived in South Boston public housing—an environment in which she was surrounded by people who, like her, had no idea how to better their lot.

Four years later, Margaret had attained her associate’s degree, had paid off $1,552 in unpaid taxes, and had saved almost $1,000. Today, she is the full-time manager of community learning programs at a local community center. “My job allows me to have a rippling effect on my community,” she writes. “I’m trying my best today to live well and to teach my son to be the best little person who he can be. I’m a productive, inspiring, and helpful member of my community, and I have never been more proud.”

Margaret’s story illustrates the impact that an anti-poverty program can have if it targets the core circumstances that cause poverty to become intractable. In recent years, scientists have discovered that the stresses of poverty often overwhelm the critical-thinking skills that people need to chart and follow a pathway out of their condition. Fortunately, we are also discovering that carefully structured programs like CFO can enable people to improve those skills.

The Wages of Stress

Those who are familiar with the reality of poverty today know that transformations like Margaret’s are rare. The erosion of the public safety net, the increasing prevalence of low-wage employment, and decreases in low-wage earnings have combined to place low-income families under constant pressure as they struggle to work, to care for their families, and to maintain their access to public benefits. Added to these burdens is the fact that most jobs that would improve their circumstances—jobs that pay family-sustaining wages—require a post-secondary education, and for most people in low-income families, the effort to obtain higher education complicates their already very complex lives.

For people like Margaret to succeed in moving their families out of poverty, they must make every decision about how to spend their limited time and money very wisely. The more limited those resources are, the more crucial every decision becomes. But, as we have come to learn, the circumstances of living in poverty often undermine people’s decision-making skills.

According to an emerging body of brain science, the stresses that come with being poor negatively affect the strategic thinking and self-regulation skills that people need in order to break the poverty cycle. These skills, known as executive function (EF) skills, are fundamental to our ability to solve problems, to multitask, to juggle priorities, to control impulses, to delay gratification, and to persist in the pursuit of goals. Researchers at the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University and elsewhere have shown that living in poverty compromises EF skills in at least two critical ways: First, poverty creates powerful stresses that swamp our thinking and create a “bandwidth tax” that decreases the quality of the decisions we make. And second, the stresses associated with poverty can alter the way the brain develops in children who are subjected to them.

Recent discoveries in brain science demonstrate that stress compromises memory, making it harder for people to remember several things at one time. Stress also makes it harder to maintain mental flexibility, to shift back and forth between potential approaches to solving problems, and to weigh the future implications of current decisions. As a result, many who have been raised in conditions of significant stress—or who are currently undergoing acute stress—struggle to keep track of the multiple problems in their lives, to analyze those problems, to explore options for dealing with them, and to set priorities for how best to move ahead.

Scientists have discovered that the stresses of poverty often overwhelm the critical-thinking skills that people need to chart a pathway out of their condition.

Brain science also shows that stress hijacks our good intentions and increases the likelihood that we will be swept away by our impulses. Even if we manage to develop a good plan, we will find it harder to stick to it if we are under stress or if we have experienced significant stress during childhood.

In sum, getting out of poverty requires people in low-income families to manage very complicated lives, to optimize decision-making, and to persevere in the face of huge odds. Yet recent advances in brain science show that poverty also creates crippling stresses that significantly hamper people’s ability to develop and sustain EF skills. So how can organizations that work with low-income families resolve this vicious Catch-22?

A Single Piece of Paper

Seven years ago, CWU began to build a new framework that enables people to buttress their strategic thinking skills and to follow through on their goals in the face of daily life challenges that would normally throw them off-course. Called the Bridge to Self Sufficiency, or the Bridge for short, this framework is an EF-informed “scaffold” structure that helps participants concurrently attain progress in the five areas that our research has shown to be pivotal to fostering economic mobility: family stability, well-being, education, financial management, and career management.

The Bridge serves as a decision-making and skill-building tool that allows participants to analyze and identify their strengths and weaknesses and then to set intermediate and long-term goals in all five of those areas. They do so using a single piece of paper that allows participants and staff members to see—all at once—a summary of the challenges that participants face, the interconnections between those challenges, and potential remedies. The Bridge scaffold serves as a problem-solving, organizational, and memory-aid tool in much the same way that others might use a written list or a software application to help them track their to-do items. The primary difference is that the Bridge is designed to organize the tasks that are most important for moving out of poverty and to display them visually on a single page.

At CWU, we refer to the process of using the Bridge scaffold—along with a set of reinforcing frameworks—as Mobility Mentoring. We developed the Mobility Mentoring approach to mitigate the specific EF-skill challenges that poverty tends to exacerbate. The aim is to sharpen the clarity of participants’ intentions and to strengthen their personal resolve. Specially trained staff members, called Mobility Mentors, act as coaches who work with participants to help them identify realistic goals and plans. In addition, Mobility Mentors connect participants with the resources they need to achieve those goals.

Through the Mobility Mentoring process, participants use contracts, measurement frameworks, and incentive systems to reinforce the goals that they developed using the Bridge. Mobility Mentors measure the goal attainment of participants in face-to-face meetings that take place at intervals of no more than six months and often (especially during the early stages of the program) more frequently. In this way, staff members create a routinized process by which participants become more adept at analyzing problems, developing options, weighing alternatives, selecting a plan, and adhering to a course of action. That coaching work ensures that over time the Bridge scaffold evolves from an externally prescribed process into an internal set of EF competencies that frees participants from the need for further coaching.

Using tools like the Bridge and Mobility Mentoring, we have discovered, can have real payoffs. In the five years since incorporating those approaches into the South Boston CFO program, we have seen public housing residents who are in the program graduate from community college at more than twice the rate of other community college students in the Boston area. In addition, we have seen members of that population save three times as much on average as the typical member of a low-income American household. Almost one-third of participants in these programs are now in family-sustaining jobs that pay from $45,000 to $50,000 per year. Within one year of introducing Mobility Mentoring into transitional homeless shelters, moreover, the proportion of residents who were regularly working or going to school increased from 45 percent to 80 percent, and those with personal savings of $150 or more went from 0 percent to 43 percent.

Findings from brain science show us that the stresses of poverty can compromise people’s decision-making skills in ways that virtually assure that the odds will be stacked against their efforts to gain upward mobility. Yet those same findings suggest that even in adulthood people can benefit from coaching and other services that improve EF skills. It’s better living through science—and, in our experience, it works.

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  • Scot Evans's avatar

    BY Scot Evans

    ON September 25, 2014 01:59 PM

    So let me get this straight. The root causes of poverty are “the erosion of the public safety net, the increasing prevalence of low-wage employment, and decreases in low-wage earnings” coupled with lack of access to higher education. These root causes (among many others) of poverty also create “crippling stresses that significantly hamper people’s ability to develop and sustain” healthy lives. And your antidote to this structural cause is an individual-level intervention to help women better cope with an unjust society? This is not “better living through science”, this is treating the victims while leaving the source unchallenged. Its more of the same: the original source of the problem in society is left unchanged while expensive new services are proposed to cater for the individuals most affected. I appreciate the efforts to help those women who are suffering, but how about we use some of that fancy science and work in solidarity with poor women to advocate for a stronger safety net, higher wages, universal health care, affordable housing, labor rights, equitable public education, and a host of things that other developed countries with lower rates of poverty have already figured out.

  • BY Shawn Ginwright

    ON September 25, 2014 02:53 PM

    Don’t Be Poor, Be Happy

    I have recently become skeptical about the scores of research that have recently surfaced calling attention to the impact of stressors on the development of children and young people. It’s not the overly zealous conclusions researchers make about brain development that use rats, and mice that bothers me. Rather it’s the nearly unanimous conclusion that what really matters in the “secret sauce” to healthy development and learning is better parenting, no excuses teaching, or more robust character traits among children and youth. There is an eerie silence among some educators and researchers when confronted with the question “what are the root causes of stress for young people in low wealth communities in the first place”? More balanced attention to both the policies that create and sustain poverty and therefore stress, as well as the biological, psycho-spiritual consequences of living in poverty is needed.

    Having worked for over 20 years with young people in urban schools, and community organizations, I am familiar with limits of arguments that singularly attribute learning, and development to what boils down to “individual” efforts despite the magnitude, complexity and scope of the challenges people face. Writers like Nicholas Kristoff, and Paul Tough accurately point out how environmental stress threatens brain development due to high and consistent doses of cortisol in the body. However, rather than identifying how to transform the root causes of stress from underfunded schools, violence, and joblessness, these writers (and others) overly rely on character development and social emotional learning as the antidote to building healthy strong young people. How might grit, gratitude and purpose (key features of social emotional learning) support learning when kids come to school hungry in the morning, dodge bullets during lunch, and fear the police as they walk home in the afternoon? How much grit actually makes a difference when nothing changes around you? I’m a fan of McFerrin’s popular song Don’t Worry, Be Happy, and Pharrel’s catchy tune Happy because they simply make me feel good. But these songs are also emblematic of a broader trend that suggests the solution to the woes of the poor can be realized through miraculous individual effort, and profound chemical regulation in the brain.

    I recalled watching the moving Happy at the recommendation of a colleague. The basic premise of the movie was that happiness was something that could be cultivated and sustained despite the external conditions of our lives. Inspiring examples of poor families from the Mississippi delta gleefully enjoying the simple life, eating crawfish on the porch with family and friends, or a man in India finds solace in spending time with his wife and children in a shack. These stories are compelling but incomplete. We don’t see what emotionally happens when the man in the Mississippi delta gets sick and cannot afford the medical care. Nor do we see, the how the man from India tucks his beautiful children away at night, but tells them for the fourth night in the row that there is no food.

    Happiness is both a function of external opportunities and our internal capacity to hope. Both are intimately tide to one another creating an inextricable elixir of possibility. As I applaud advances in brain research that shed light into the consequences of stress, and positive psychology’s claims that focus on character strengths, lets not let toxic public policy off the hook! No amount of happiness, grit, gratitude can alone counter policies and practices that lock undocumented immigrants out of health care, justify police homicide and dislocated residents from poor neighborhoods. We need both a policy of hope, and broader practices of possibilities to usher healthy development, more robust learning and happier young people.

  • This sounds like a great program, one that is very much needed. The above two commenters prefer to ignore the lives of the poor while focusing only on policy changes (which are unlikely to come to pass), leaving the poor without the tools needed to change their lives. One must deal with individual, cultural and structural changes if one wants an overall approach to poverty.

  • Please become familiar with the long-time, effective work of communities that have been implementing Bridges Out of Poverty (with a lens that looks at Individuals, Community social capital, Exploitation, and Policies—4 holes in the same ship called Poverty that all much be attended to, since fixing only one of them will not keep the ship afloat or progressing) ... and Getting Ahead in a Just-Gettin’-By World (link from above website) ... and the Circles movement , which couples the aforementioned trainings with empowered Circle Leaders (people seeking to leave poverty) with Allies (people from middle class and wealth who are supportive of the Circle Leader’s goals and personal progress).
    Also check out the book, authors, and movement behind “When Helping Hurts: Alleviating Poverty without Hurting the Poor or Yourself.”
    Those engaged in the concepts behind these movements are truly helping people move out of poverty, leaving the tyranny of the moment lifestyle, and creating their own goals and stepping forward on the path to reach those goals.
    All your talk about “brain research” truly sounds like you’re looking at people in poverty as lab specimens to be studied.  Please view this depiction of Julia Dinsmore’s poem “My Name Is Not ‘Those People’”

  • BY Colleen LaFontaine

    ON September 25, 2014 10:35 PM

    Well written argument Elizabeth and interesting work.

  • Sabatina Andreucetti's avatar

    BY Sabatina Andreucetti

    ON September 26, 2014 01:34 AM

    Poverty stresses and distresses the individual, their families and their communities thus society is distressed. So much latent talent wasted. Along with some of the most priviledged people accessing educational, business and employment that are wasted resources on them. Equality non discrimination serves all of us, including our beautiful planet that is under stress.

  • There is validity in the article. Speaking from personal experience, when you are consumed with trying to earn enough money for basic necessities daily, the capacity to make decisions that could potentially lift you out of economic and social constraints is diminished, and the stress is overwhelming. Like many others in the same situation,  I am in survivor mode constantly, and there’s mentally no room to think and form strategies for anything else. Unless you’ve truly been in this situation (and by the way, everyone in my immediate family including myself, are college graduates), you don’t fully understand the truth of the article. If more people or organizations who create social programs take into account the almost crippling mental stresses, I’m convinced that we will have more successful programs,  and more people will be able to escape the poverty cycle.

  • Elizabeth's avatar

    BY Elizabeth

    ON September 27, 2014 10:31 AM

    It is crucial that colleges and universities understand the role of adrenalin and cortisol in brain function.  But above and beyond that dry intellectual acknowledgement of the things that hold some people back from being their very best selves, it’s also crucial that we understand the benefits of one-on-one mentoring. 

    College is the first time some people are away from their home environments.  And for those who are already working and are taking courses part-time, it’s often the first time they’ve been asked to look at the world in a much broader context.  We all need guidance during the process of higher education, because it’s a huge dose of diversity (ideas, people, etc.)  But it turns out that the benefit of hands-on mentoring and advising is enormous for those whose young lives were bathed in stress.

    Policy-makers and college administrators take heed: college is the time to be supported, not left to one’s own devices.  It can be a turning-point in people’s lives—if we allow it to be so by offering personalized and timely support to each student.  Let’s be there for people.

  • BY Nicholas Gruen

    ON September 30, 2014 02:10 AM

    The ideas peddled in this article and deeper structural action are not substitutes but complements - in almost every sense. They are each good, and I expect any amount of one will be better with some of the other. I also suspect that they are political as well as economic complements - each reinforcing the other.

    But yes, I guess the critics have a point that the enthusiasm for all these brain science based interventions do tend to pathologise poverty to the individual and focus solutions there.

  • Sabatina Andreucetti's avatar

    BY Sabatina Andreucetti

    ON September 30, 2014 04:25 AM

    Agree with Nikki so much.

  • Angela Carter's avatar

    BY Angela Carter

    ON September 30, 2014 06:12 PM

    Thanks for providing some scientific research on the crippling effect of poverty on an individual, family and community. Many people who have been through a stressful situation know how difficult it can be to make decisions during those bleak days so the science reinforces what most of us know.

    The Bridge program/framework is commendable but from the description can be costly and time-consuming - luxuries that most community social service providers don’t have. Many funders only want to provide funding for one year and at the most two years. A program like this takes time to implement to ensure the outcomes are favourable, if not the participants can spiral back into the poverty cycle.

    Yet, I am optimistic that each step we take, each program each offer will help to reduce poverty around the world.

  • BY Wayne Elsey

    ON October 1, 2014 12:48 PM

    Awesome article> We help people here in America and abroad with our fundraising strategies that create micro jobs with micro-enterprise operators. Check out Creating OPPORTUNITIES are the solution while offering HOPE to the hurting.

  • Veronica's avatar

    BY Veronica

    ON October 7, 2014 12:51 PM

    A very good range of comments on a good article - we must bring any new knowledge/understandings back to the holistic picture of individual, community, society and environment - a completely interdependent system.

    Enabling individuals to reclaim there ability to think, grow and choose their futures is still vitally important and any deeper understandings we can bring to this is great - ultimately if all individuals become self aware and enabled then as a community and society we can begin tackling any unjust polices ‘together’ - how many of the disenfranchised people who do not vote belong in a group of those trapped in poverty?

    Here in NZ the poverty debate is very active as we have campaigned loudly during the recent election on the disturbing rise of population affected by poverty - in a country that claims to be fair and equitable with opportunities for all! Fortunately the noise is getting through and the re-elected centre-right government is now talking about paying attention to the issue after denying there was a real problem for the last six years in govt.

    If humanity wants to have a long future, we must continue on all fronts to advocate for a just and inclusive society that also cares enough about it’s home - the earth.

  • BY Alain Kongo

    ON October 12, 2014 11:25 AM

    Beautiful Post!

    Poverty is a mental thing which only Social Entrepreneurship can eradicate.

    Social Entrepreneurship is indeed the way forward!
    For a thorough presentation of Social Entrepreneurship and the impact it will have on the future of humanity,

    I strongly recommend a recent book, Social Entrepreneurship, The Secret to Starting a Business Worth Living For.

    A good review of the book can be found Here.

  • Mary Fish's avatar

    BY Mary Fish

    ON October 23, 2014 03:05 PM

    Having worked with homeless families for years in a shelter environment I have seen the stress of it just shut them down, It is interesting to read about why that may be happening due to brain chemistry and how its effects them long term. If you have worked with families in crisis you know that there are not many “Frank Capra ” moments. Its often a long and hard road to achieve long term permanent stability. Having alternative way to re-engage these parents and help them restart their lives is very helpful. Also when they stall it is helpful to think OK let’s look at your stress reactions.

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