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Reducing child poverty is a no-brainer — but not because of effects on children’s brains

Poverty is bad for children. Their advocates don’t need to rely on the shape of children’s brain waves to push for greater supports.

Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) discusses the child tax credit in July 2021. (Michael Blackshire/The Washington Post)

A new study has found that babies of poor mothers who received cash stipends last year had changes in their brain activity patterns. As the expanded, refundable child tax credit (CTC) has expired and key politicians, in particular Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.), have been withholding their support for reviving this important anti-poverty program, its supporters have expressed hope that this finding will perhaps help seal the deal. The expectation is that if cash benefits can improve the neurological development of infants, sustaining this policy is a no-brainer. As a pediatrician recently tweeted to his 30,000 followers, policy impacts biology.

Not so fast. This line of argument suggests that ending poverty in its own right is not a sufficient goal and that improving the brain function and biology of poor babies should drive policy. We have seen this before. In the 1960s, for example, Great Society policymakers worked to develop numerous anti-poverty interventions. Yet many of these valuable programs overpromised what they could achieve in children’s development, even claiming they would raise children’s IQs.

When these programs subsequently did not result in such measurable outcomes, they were roundly criticized and suffered a crippling lack of public support — even when they did achieve other meaningful anti-poverty goals. This is particularly clear with Project Head Start, the early-childhood education program pioneered in 1965. Its history points to the pitfalls of such thinking for CTC and anti-poverty advocates today.

Early enrichment was a popular anti-poverty measure in the 1960s. Scholarly research showed that children from poor families arrived to school unprepared and thus their academic achievement suffered. Scholars theorized that deficits in children’s home environment were leading to these poor outcomes. They likened the effect to that seen in experimental studies in sensory deprivation.

Legislators embraced these findings as they worked on policy interventions, and their reasoning went something like this: Poor children’s home environments were drab and colorless, devoid of interaction and lacking in books, and poor mothers failed to engage their children in a stimulating manner. Poor children, like experimental monkeys raised in darkness or in isolation, simply did not receive the necessary stimulation for their brain development. Placing these children in early-enrichment centers would help rectify these deficits and enhance their intellectual development.

When Project Head Start was announced in 1965, first lady Lady Bird Johnson described these deprived children. Some children “don’t even know a hundred words, because they have not heard a hundred words,” and some did not even know their own names, as they had never heard them spoken, she claimed — baselessly, echoing theories of extreme deprivation in poor homes.

Policymakers believed that deprived children would receive necessary enrichment only in educational settings outside their homes. While the stated goals of Project Head Start were to prevent cultural deprivation and promote school, because researchers had repeatedly suggested that cultural deprivation was the reason for low scores on academic aptitude tests, many policymakers also believed that early intervention would pay off in measurable academic and intellectual gains in poor children.

In the early years of Project Head Start, children 3 and up were able to experience their first educational program. It was launched as an eight-week summer initiative, and in its first iteration over 560,000 children enrolled in local programs funded through federal grants. It was later expanded to a year-round experience, and low-income families with preschool children clamored to participate in the community-based programming, which included education, health, nutrition and enrichment and involved local parents, volunteers and educators.

Early evaluations of Project Head Start’s effectiveness focused on whether children’s IQs had increased, a parameter easy to quantify but not necessarily reflective of the program’s broader goals. Then in 1969, a comprehensive evaluation of Head Start’s first four years commissioned by the Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO) did not identify lasting academic gains in the following years. This result should not have been surprising — how could a short summer program or even a full-year preschool program translate to increased academic achievement in third grade, absent other interventions? Nixon administration policymakers who were already skeptical about anti-poverty programming embraced this critical report.

The report raised “very serious questions about the impact of the program and whether we are putting our money in the right place,” argued a high-ranking evaluator at the OEO. President Richard M. Nixon seized the chance to transfer the program from the OEO to a newly created Office of Child Development under the Department of Health, Education and Welfare, demonstrating the administration’s move away from anti-poverty work. This would foreshadow decades-long attacks on federal anti-poverty action.

Project Head Start survived, even as other anti-poverty programs shut down. But it remained plagued by questions about “effectiveness” rooted in the idea that ensuring academic gains was the only important outcome for the program. A better focus would have been how the program could best support poor children and families.

While the program moved away from its focus on measuring intelligence, it continued to define “school readiness” as part of its primary goals. But school readiness is closely tied to poverty, and offering an early-childhood program, while valuable, cannot address the many variables that shape why poor children often struggle academically.

The 1960s researchers whose ideas had shaped this approach missed a lot in their analysis. They entrenched harmful stereotypes and tropes about indifferent, incompetent or ignorant parents being to blame for children’s school performance. But the problem wasn’t the lack of colorful decor in the poor households or “unstimulating” parents — it was deep-seated economic inequality, reflected in children’s underfunded, segregated schools and neighborhoods.

Rather than marshaling support for policies to address these problems, adopting a brain-based, essentialist argument for anti-poverty family support programs not only bred disillusionment about these types of programs but also ran the risk of pathologizing poor families. Policymakers asked “what is wrong with poor children” and their families, rather than considering the many ways our policies were failing them.

This approach also helped fuel a renewed and ugly debate on race and intelligence. Scientists began poring over IQ and achievement test results to argue that compensatory education had tried and failed. Some argued the data showed that intelligence was primarily hereditary and that the (perceived) gap in intelligence between racial groups was because of an essential difference between them. This nature-nurture debate raged on, with figures such as Charles Murray publishing books in the 1990s on racial differences in aptitude, providing scholarly fodder for white supremacists and undermining political support for anti-poverty interventions.

With this new study showing brain benefits from giving poor children’s families money, it opens the door to troubling questions. If poor children’s brains are “improved” from cash benefits, does that imply that their brains are biologically inferior to begin with? Presenting social science interventions as having the potential of “fixing” poor children — and among this group the overrepresented number of children who are from minority backgrounds — has the distinct risk of fueling a debate about whether some children and families are innately and immutably inferior.

Reducing poverty in children is good policy because there is a wealth of evidence that poverty hurts children. Making sure children have food, shelter, clothing and access to the resources they need to thrive is a social good. Acting to prevent child poverty is good because, to put it bluntly, poverty is bad for children. Nearly 11 million children in the United States live in poverty, at a rate far higher than in our peer countries. These children deserve better, and their advocates don’t need to rely on the shape of children’s brain waves to make that case.