With Congressional Republicans almost giddy about cutting programs designed to help struggling people and even President Obama proudly showing what a “super serious person” he can be by cutting home heating assistance for poor people, it’s important to reflect on what the latest research says about the long-term damage the extreme stress of poverty and joblessness can cause. From Seed Magazine:
[Princeton Professor Elizabeth] Gould’s insight was that understanding how stress damages the brain could illuminate the general mechanisms—especially neurogenesis—by which the brain is affected by its environ-mental conditions. For the last several years, she and her post-doc, Mirescu, have been depriving newborn rats of their mother for either 15 minutes or three hours a day. For an infant rat, there is nothing more stressful. Earlier studies had shown that even after these rats become adults, the effects of their developmental deprivation linger: They never learn how to deal with stress. “Normal rats can turn off their glucocorticoid system relatively quickly,” Mirescu says. “They can recover from the stress response. But these deprived rats can’t do that. It’s as if they are missing the ‘off’ switch.”
“Poverty is stress,” she says, with more than a little passion in her voice. “One thing that always strikes me is that when you ask Americans why the poor are poor, they always say it’s because they don’t work hard enough, or don’t want to do better. They act like poverty is a character issue.”
Gould’s work implies that the symptoms of poverty are not simply states of mind; they actually warp the mind. Because neurons are designed to reflect their circumstances, not to rise above them, the monotonous stress of living in a slum literally limits the brain.
In classic bleeding heart liberal fashion I support programs to help my fellow Americans who are suffering mainly for the simple reason I don’t want to see my fellow Americans suffer needlessly. Especially when I know if we cut our military budget to merely twice as much as the next largest nation’s military budget we would have plenty of money to help regular Americans in need.
But the latest research on mental development shows there is an important long-term economic argument for investing in alleviating poverty, especially childhood poverty.
By failing to do enough now to deal with poverty, joblessness, and extreme financial stresses for families like medical bankruptcy, real long-term damage is being done to the mental capacity of millions of young Americans. Damage that could lead to decades of greater long-term costs from increased crime, loss of potential productivity, higher health care costs and the need for even more social services.
Looking from not only a moral standpoint but an economic one, cutting services that help families get through one of the worst economic downturns in decades may not win but instead lose the future.