Recently I’ve seen news reports with headlines like this one: “Can Brain Science Help Lift People Out Of Poverty?
This particular article described the near miraculous recovery of a woman who grew up surrounded by violence in the housing projects, became a “single mom on welfare” who wasted her money and damaged her health with a pack-a-day smoking habit, and was stuck in an abusive relationship. Then, with the help of “a novel program that uses the latest neuroscience research to help women dig themselves out of poverty” by making better choices, she quit smoking, got rid of the bad boyfriend, earned a business management degree and landed a job as an administrative assistant. It’s not the only article I’ve seen recently that is looking at brain science as a way to cure poverty.
The enchantment with neuroscience to explain social misery has spread among individuals and organizations with longstanding commitments to progressive social change. “What the new brain science says is that the stresses created by living in poverty often work against us, make it harder for our brains to find the best solutions to our problems. This is a part of the reason why poverty is so ‘sticky,'” explained Elisabeth Babcock, chief executive of the nonprofit Crittenton Women’s Union. Recent research from Princeton University has suggested that living in poverty can have an impact on concentration. Other research has found a similar correlation between poverty and neuroscience.
There is growing public discourse invoking neuroscience to re-emphasize that poverty really is bad, that bullying and abuse really hurt children, and that someone who has experiencedrape or torture really is suffering. But uncritically invoking neuroscience is a risky proposition.
Proving the obvious
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. In light of the ongoing failures of the Veterans Administration to adequately serve our veterans, I am particularly concerned with statements …
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