What brain science has to do with poverty

Asking for help is hard. It’s humbling and often humiliating. For those most in need in our society, the traditional model of providing financial assistance or case management is often transactional, cold and ineffective. Rather than motivating people to keep going, the traditional process often makes people feel helpless and hopeless. Instead of moving forward, people get stuck.

Most assistance programs solve an immediate need. Your electricity is going to be cut off? We’ll pay the bill for you. Problem solved. Except that the disconnection notice was a symptom, not the problem. The problem is that the family can’t afford electricity. The assistance the family received did not resolve the problem. Many might ask: “Why don’t they solve the problem themselves by getting a better job?”

Imagine you are exhausted from working two minimum wage jobs that don’t even pay your bills. Your car broke down so you’re sitting in the cold waiting for the bus that was supposed to come 10 minutes ago. Questions race through your mind: “Am I going to be fired for being late? Is the daycare going to kick out my kids because I don’t get my paycheck until after the bill is due? How am I going to get that electric bill paid?” Are you feeling overwhelmed yet? People living in poverty not only have compounded barriers to overcome but also stress from those barriers, which increases the difficulty of making decisions to move forward.

Our experiences change the way our brains develop. Many experts believe that learning is actually the process of making connections between cause and effect. The brain develops from the bottom up; basic instincts grow and then develop into complex thoughts. We are generally born with the part of our brain that keeps us alive up and running. Childhood is largely spent on development of sensory processing, movement coordination, and regulating the limbic system, which is the part of the brain that processes emotion. Think of babies who scream like they’re dying the moment they feel hungry and who later learn to communicate the need and get it met without all the drama.

The last area of the brain to fully mature is the frontal lobe, responsible for planning and decision making. Maturation usually takes place throughout adolescence and young adulthood, within the parent/child relationship. Proper development of the frontal lobe helps regulate emotions, letting us respond appropriately to a situation. For some, parents were never around — whether they were off scoring drugs or working three jobs to hold down a place to live. The parents weren’t there to provide the stability and guidance that strengthen the connection between the frontal lobe and the limbic system within the child. These people have lived in a survival mode their whole lives. Their limbic brain remains unregulated and they continue to react to stressful life events out of instinct, not thoughtful planning. Yes, we all must pull ourselves up by our bootstraps, but to do so we first need a pair of boots.

Behavioral science tells us that misbehavior points to an unmet need. A great case manager knows that a client yelling at his or her boss or not showing up to work after a perceived slight may be connected to the client’s brain in fight or flight mode. With respectful curiosity, the case manager can help the client learn to regulate emotions so the client responds to stress in a way that doesn’t create more problems.

People who’ve experienced trauma — and living in poverty is traumatic — must also learn that survival tools used in one situation don’t necessarily work in another. If lying about what you did today keeps your husband from beating you, then it does not follow that lying will keep your boss from firing you when you’re late for work. If the brain created a connection between lying and avoiding danger, that connection is difficult to undo. The brain has to build a new connection linking the avoidance of danger with something other than lying. The brain will have to experience the new connection over and over again before it is stronger than the original. This process takes time and focus.

Part of a case manager’s job is to help guide clients through this development process. To guide a client well, case managers must understand that poverty is not a character defect. Clients don’t need to “try harder;” they need to develop functions they’ve never been given room to develop before. And respecting their dignity and worth means walking with them through setbacks and successes because progress is never linear. When case management is done well, the case manager becomes a witness to people learning to create change in their lives, people rising out of poverty.

[The article was written by Kimberly Nix Lawrence, LCSW, program manager, Padua Pilot and Working Family Services, Catholic Charities Fort Worth.]

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