sociology

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Brain Science, Dangerous? Not So Fast, Says Poverty Expert

Back in June, we wrote about a novel program in Boston that seeks to lift women and their families from poverty, in part by using the latest research in neuroscience. Specifically, the program (developed by the nonprofit Crittenton Women’s Union) takes into account recent studies that reveal how trauma, and poverty, can rewire the brain and potentially undermine executive function.

In an Op-Talk piece in this week’s New York Times headlined “Can Brain Science Be Dangerous?” writer Anna North cites our story, and then goes on to question whether this type of approach might be problematic. In the article, North refers to sociologist Susan Sered:

Dr. Sered…says that applying neuroscience to problems like poverty can sometimes lead to trouble: “Studies showing that trauma and poverty change people’s brains can too easily be read as scientific proof that poor people (albeit through no fault of their own) have inferior brains or that women who have been raped are now brain-damaged.”

She worries that neuroscience could be used to discount people’s experiences: “In settings where medical experts have a monopoly on determining and corroborating claims of abuse, what would happen when a brain scan doesn’t show the expected markers of trauma? Does that make the sufferer into a liar?”

We asked Elisabeth Babock, president and chief executive officer of Crittenten Women’s Union, to respond to the Times piece. Here, lightly edited, is what she wrote:

Moving out of poverty in the U.S. today is an extremely complicated and challenging process. It involves trying to maintain a roof over your head when the minimum wage doesn’t cover the minimum rent; and trying to get a better paying job when almost all those jobs require education beyond high-school and the costs of that education, in both money and time, are well beyond the means of most low-wage workers. It involves trying to care for a family while filling in the gaps in what the minimum wage will buy with increasingly-frayed public supports. It involves a lot of juggling.

We at Crittenton Women’s Union (CWU) understand this process all too well because we work with hundreds of people trying to navigate their way out of poverty every day: homeless families living in our transitional housing and domestic violence shelters, and people who are living on the edge of homelessness, struggling to make ends meet. What we at CWU see is that the stress of this everyday struggle creates an additional set of monumental challenges for those we serve.

Our families often describe themselves as feeling “swamped” by their problems to the point that they can only think about how to deal with the crisis of the moment. And in those moments, they may not have the mental bandwidth to strategize about how to change their current circumstances or help them get ahead.

One of the most valuable things brain science research does for this struggle is that it validates what our families share about the way being in poverty affects them. Instead of saying that stress leaves people “irrevocably debilitated”, or worse still, that people should somehow rise above this crippling stress to “just move on” the science actually suggests something much more important. It calls upon all of us to understand that poverty, trauma, and discrimination are experiences whose cumulative effects impact our health, decision-making, and well-being in tangible and predictable ways, and because of this, we as a society can and must do our best to remediate it. Continue reading

Will They Ever Leave? What It Takes To Nudge Millennials Out Of Nest

How do young adults who successfully move out overcome adversities? According to a new study, it all boils down to peer support. (ibm4381/Flickr)

How do young adults who successfully move out overcome adversities? According to a new study, it all boils down to peer support. (ibm4381/Flickr)

Truth be told, my position in life is somewhat confusing. While I’m no longer a teenager, at 21 I can’t say I feel all that adult-like. I’ve finished one degree, but I’m not ready to commit to any one career. I recently moved into my first apartment, though I have no idea where I’ll be living 10, five or even two years from now. According to developmental psychologists, these are all indicators that I am in my emerging adulthood.

But what exactly is “emerging adulthood”? It’s the period of life between adolescence and full-fledged adulthood, between the late teens and late 20s, where people explore their options before committing seriously to a career, home, or family. And according to experts, it’s happening later and later. Dr. Jeff Arnett of Clark University, who coined the term “emerging adulthood” in 2000, points to the fact that North Americans are delaying adopting a permanent residence until reaching their 30s.

The reasons are complex and diverse, Arnett says: they include a shift in the economy that necessitates more education, a rising marriage age and, more nebulously, an increased sense of personal freedom over the past several decades. All this makes conventional adulthood “a less attractive destination,” he says. (I’ll say.) And then there’s the job market, which makes the decision to move out even more complicated.

This doesn’t mean that today’s young adults aren’t feeling the itch for independence, however. Some friends of mine who remained at home after college say they “would’ve preferred to have gone elsewhere,” and cite being “treated like a child” by parents as both a positive reason why they stayed at home and a negative — why they didn’t want to be there. Fortunately, my parents conveyed confidence in my ability to live on my own. In moving out, I benefitted greatly from knowing my parents had my back, should I need financial or emotional support.

For foster-care children, the lack of a parental support system presents a huge issue. Professor Varda Mann-Feder knows this problem intimately, after having spent decades working with foster children as they transition into adulthood. But there may be good news for emerging adults in foster care: a new study headed by Mann-Feder and her colleagues at Concordia University shows that peer support systems could be even more important than parental support in facilitating the transition to independent living.

While parents played an important role in how confidently participants experienced the transition — particularly based on parents’ willingness to provide a financial safety net — Mann-Feder found that Millennials “much preferred to turn to their friends for help if they needed it,” and “benefit greatly from watching their peers who have already moved out.” Conversely, young adults who opted to stay in their childhood home pointed to friends who were doing the same. Because they tend to model their peers, “when, how and where a young person moves is to a large degree determined by what their friends are doing,” says Mann-Feder. Continue reading

Study Finds Working Moms Multi-Task More. Duh.

As every working mother I know would say, in unison: “You needed a study for this???”

But yes, new research, published in the December 1 issue of American Sociological Review and titled “Revisiting the Gender Gap in Time-Use Patterns: Multitasking and Well-Being Among Mothers and Fathers in Dual-Earner Families,” has found that moms with jobs outside the home do more juggling than dads.

This morning, as I was making my kids’ lunches, fixing the typos in our blog’s daily roundup, imagining the choreography I’ve promised for a family opera I’m performing in, taking pictures of my kindergartner’s pajama day at school and preparing to talk about sexual anorexia on the radio later today, I thought my brain might explode. Continue reading