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Tower of cardsDavid Brooks is on a book tour for his latest book The Road to Character. The tour comes at a time when once again conversations about poverty are percolating across all types of media. And Mr. Brooks is taking a stand that inspires wrath from some (Paul Krugman, Race, Class, and Neglect NYT, May 4, 2015) who mistakenly equate his reference to social psychology with morality.

Those familiar with the now famous Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) study (Felitti et al., 1998) recognize that Mr. Brooks’ reference to “relationships in a home and neighborhood that either encourage or discourage responsibility, future oriented thinking, and practical ambition” has nothing to do with morality. Rather he is referring to the alterations in brain development that are the result of prolonged exposure to childhood adversities such as poverty. These early childhood experiences inhibit the development of executive functioning. In other words, the area of the brain responsible for cause and effect, personal agency, motivation, and the ability to regulate behavior to achieve future oriented goals. This is not a moral judgement but scientific fact (see Bessel van der Kolk, Developmental Trauma Disorder, 2005).

Prolonged financial insecurity eats away at the protective capacity of the family in ways that are traumatizing to both parents and their children. Poor people are “under resourced and overburdened” (Babcock, 2014). For many parents, the struggle to survive hijacks their ability to make decisions, or solve problems (Babcock, 2014). The cognitive burden imposed by poverty leaves little bandwidth to do many of the things needed to improve their situation (Badger, 2013). They are unable to imagine a way out.

It is this intersection of poverty and trauma that is so detrimental to children. Until society can provide the personal support families need to move beyond the traumagenic foundations of chronic poverty, efforts to break its intergenerational cycle are unlikely to succeed.

Read more at:

Babcock, E. (2014). Using brain research to design new pathways out of poverty. Brighton, MA: Crittendon Women’s Union.

Badger, E. (2013, August 29). How poverty taxes the brain. The Atlantic CityLab. Retrieved from http://www.citylab.com/work/2013/08/how-poverty-taxes-brain/6716

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