Spotlight Exclusives

Collaboration, Not Arguments, Needed to Fight Poverty

Anthony Biglan, Oregon Research Institute Anthony Biglan, Oregon Research Institute, posted on

Public discussion about poverty frequently asks us to decide between the view that poverty is the result of cultural factors and individual shortcomings or that the poor are victims of an avaricious marketplace and harmful economic policy. However, rather than illuminating key issues, these debates too often end up as a distraction.

A better approach and one that has greater chance of uniting those across the political spectrum is to fully account for the corrosive impact of poverty and work to identify and expand programs and practices that have been shown to be effective in combating these harmful effects. It might not be obvious from the partisan rancor over these issues, but it’s surprising just how much we already know about what works to fight poverty.

In The Nurture Effect: How the Science of Human Behavior Can Improve Our Lives and Our World, I describe policies that can reduce family poverty and programs that can help poor families nurture the cognitive, social, and verbal skills of children that enable them to escape inter-generational poverty.

For instance, policies such as the Earned Income Tax Credit,the Affordable Care Act, the minimum wage, and housing vouchers increase family income and improve quality of life while helping mitigate against unexpected hardships.

Programs and policies need to cultivate soft skills as well. Initiatives like the Nurse Family Partnership, Parent Management Training, Oregon, the Family Check-Up, Multidimensional Treatment Foster CareStrong African American Families Project, and Multisystemic Therapy are all valuable in this regard. Each of these programs can reduce family conflict, improve parents۪ skill and patience, and prevent the development of myriad problems including academic failure, aggression, delinquency, and depression. And access to high quality preschools programs has been shown to significantly improve the life prospects for children living in poverty.

These policies can ensure that individuals and families have access to a robust safety net and develop the tools necessary to give them the best chance at success.

Many may take umbrage at an emphasis on improving personal skills as it seems to imply some sort of personal defect or shortcoming. However, as a behavioral scientist, I see the issue differently.

I have spent the last 40 years studying the way that people۪s behavior is influenced by their environment and learning how we can create environments that nurture the development of behaviors and character traits that benefit people and those around them.

Children raised in poverty may fail to develop the self-regulatory, social, and language skills they need to succeed in school because of their family and preschool environments. As a result, they tend to fail in school and be rejected bypeers. We should not be surprised if they are not as motivated as children who are getting a lot more reinforcement in school.

So shall we blame parents? There too I am an environmentalist. Living in poverty is stressful and undermines patient, effective parenting. So, yes, many poor parents fail to nurture the skills and traits that poor children need, but it will do little good to blame them for it. Within every effective family intervention is the principle that the way to help parents become more nurturing is to join them in supporting their aspirations for their children and their families, not blame them for their failings.

Recognizing the extent to which one’s environment shapes outcomes allows us to address issues such as cognitive and behavioral skills without treating shortcomings as some sort of personal failure on the part of those living in poverty.

Casting aspersions on poor children or their parents may work to undermine public support for effective programs and policies that will reduce poverty and its consequences and will do nothing to achieve a society that values the wellbeing of every person.

Ultimately, we have a values choice. Do we want a society that makes one of its highest values ensuring that most children arrive at adulthood with the skills,interests, and values they need to lead productive lives in caring relationships with others?  Our goal should not be to win arguments, but to build a super-coalition of individuals and organizations that advocates among people of all political and religious persuasions to implement the solutions that we know work. This means encouraging people to embrace the value of ensuring every young person۪s success.

I believe that an understanding of environmental factors coupled with compassion and empathy can help realize this vision. And if we choose to truly make poverty alleviation and economic opportunity a priority, we already know the types of programs that can translate this passion into results.

Leave the arguments to someone else. What we need is a warm, respectful, caring movement of people who, in advocating for the programs and policies we need, exemplify the very kind of nurturing in the process of advocacy that we are trying to achieve in homes, schools, and neighborhoods.

To print a PDF version of this document, click here.

Anthony Biglan is a senior scientist at Oregon Research Institute. His book, The Nurture Effect: How the science of human behavior can improve our lives and our world was released earlier this year. Follow him on Twitter at @ABiglan.

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