Fairmount InSights

Poverty ranks among the greatest social issues of the 21st century.

As America’s income-gap grows, a nation of haves and have-nots is emerging. While more Americans are pushed into poverty, there also are many who have always lived in poverty. The latter group are the long-term poor. It’s important to note the distinction because the long-term poor face more significant challenges to overcome their situation.

X-Ray Brain

New research from Harvard University’s Center on the Developing Child shows living in poverty creates physiologic brain changes in children. The stresses of poverty reduce the mental flexibility needed to switch between analyzing problems, predict accurate conclusions between choice and action, and develop willpower to not make impulsive decisions. The longer you live in poverty, the more stress you accumulate. The more stress you accumulate, the more brain changes affects your decision-making ability.

Elizabeth D. Babcock, CEO of a Boston-based nonprofit that helps low-income women break the cycle of poverty, writes in greater depth about this issue in “Rethinking Poverty.” Elizabeth’s work shows a change in how social-good services are approaching the difficult task to lift the long-term poor from destitute. The new strategy is working.

The correct approach?

Elizabeth’s approach to combat poverty for the long-term poor hasn’t won approval from everyone.

A reader of Elizabeth’s article wrote a comment that takes an opposing viewpoint about the correct approach to help transition people out of poverty:

“The root causes of poverty are ‘the erosion of the public safety net, the increasing prevalence of low-wage employment, and decreases in low-wage earnings’ coupled with lack of access to higher education. These root causes (among many others) of poverty also create ‘crippling stresses that significantly hamper people’s ability to develop and sustain’ healthy lives. And your antidote to this structural cause is an individual-level intervention to help women better cope with an unjust society? This is not ‘better living through science’, this is treating the victims while leaving the source unchallenged. Its more of the same: the original source of the problem in society is left unchanged while expensive new services are proposed to cater for the individuals most affected.”

This post won’t advocate for either viewpoint.

Instead, it’s interesting to consider the idea that the nonprofit sector is powerful because it can approach social problems from multiple angles.

What do you think? Do you agree with Elizabeth’s take or the commenter? How should nonprofits approach defeating social problems?


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