By David Brooks
Tough interviewed a young lady named Monisha, who was pulled out of class by a social worker, taken to a strange foster home and forbidden from seeing her father for months. “I remember the first day like it was yesterday. Every detail. I still have dreams about it. I feel like I’m going to be damaged forever.”
Monisha’s anxiety sensors are still going full blast. “If a plane flies over me, I think they’re going to drop a bomb. I think about my dad dying,” she told Tough. “When I get scared, I start shaking. My heart starts beating. I start sweating. You know how people say ‘I was scared to death’? I get scared that that’s really going to happen to me one day.”
Tough’s book is part of what you might call the psychologizing of domestic policy. In the past several decades, policy makers have focused on the material and bureaucratic things that correlate to school failure, like poor neighborhoods, bad nutrition, schools that are too big or too small. But, more recently, attention has shifted to the psychological reactions that impede learning—the ones that flow from insecure relationships, constant movement and economic anxiety.
By Nicholas D. Kristof
This may illuminate one way that poverty replicates itself from generation to generation. Children in poor households grow up under constant stress, disproportionately raised by young, single mothers also under tremendous stress, and the result may be brain architecture that makes it harder for the children to thrive at school or succeed in the work force.
Yet the cycle can be broken, and the implication is that the most cost-effective way to address poverty isn’t necessarily housing vouchers or welfare initiatives or prison-building. Rather, it may be early childhood education and parenting programs.
Scholars like James Heckman of the University of Chicago and Dr. Jack Shonkoff of Harvard have pioneered this field, and decades of fascinating research is now wonderfully assembled in Paul Tough’s important new book, “How Children Succeed.” Long may this book dwell on the best-seller lists!
As Tough suggests, the evidence is mounting that conservatives are right about some fundamental issues relating to poverty. For starters, we can’t talk just about welfare or tax policy but must also consider culture and character.
“There is no antipoverty tool we can provide for disadvantaged young people that will be more valuable,” Tough writes, than grit, resilience, perseverance and optimism.
Yet conservatives sometimes mistakenly see that as the end of the conversation.
“This science suggests a very different reality,” Tough writes. “It says that the character strengths that matter so much to young people’s success are not innate; they don’t appear in us magically, as a result of good luck or good genes. And they are not simply a choice. They are rooted in brain chemistry, and they are molded, in measurable and predictable ways, by the environment in which kids grow up. That means the rest of us—society as a whole—can do an enormous amount to influence their development.”
New Version of Classic Marshmallow Experiment Upends Original Conclusions
In it, a marshmallow was placed before young children, who were told to wait for it. The original experiment concluded that those who waited longer succeeded later in life. In shorthand:
Character => success
But in the revised experiment, the researchers withheld art supplies from one group of children before testing them with the marshmallow. Those who had been frustrated this way were much quicker to take the marshmallow. In shorthand:
Environment => character => stress
The implications of this study are obvious. As in Tough's book, kids in an unstable or unpredictable environment are more likely to avoid stress and seek comfort. That means dropping out of school or a job and pursuing sex, drugs, or gang affiliation. Which leads to a criminal record, a disease, or an unwanted pregnancy. The kids aren't "weak" because of their race or culture. They simply lack the mental maturity most of us take for granted. Any person raised in that environment would come out roughly the same.
This must be the 10th or 20th item I've posted on the subject of why poverty happens. Again, it's not because people are lazy and don't work hard enough. It's because environmental factors rob people of their ability to focus, learn, and apply themselves.
These people are victims of circumstance, which is why we denounce those who blame the victim. They often can't overcome their handicaps by themselves, but they can with our help. As Kristof says, we can and should do whatever we can to influence their development.
For more on the subject, see:
GOP America: strivers vs. parasites
Social factors affect intelligence
Romney: 47% are moochers
America's "bootstrap theology"
Conservatives admit welfare-bashing is racial