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This interview with Dr. Gary Evans, Elizabeth Lee Vincent Professor in the College of Human Ecologywas written for the Jacobs Foundation's BOLD initiative.

Reprinted from the Blog on Learning & Development, May 15, 2017.

Meeri Kim: Much of your work focuses on how children’s environment affects their health and well-being — in particular, the ways in which childhood poverty can lead to negative developmental outcomes. What are the components of poverty that tend to hit kids the hardest?

Gary Evans

Gary Evans: Throughout my work, I’ve tried to make the point that one of the reasons why poverty is harmful for kids is the chronic stress they experience as a result. One of the things that is unique and unfortunately quite powerful about childhood poverty is this accumulation of stressors, both physical and psychosocial. Physical stressors include housing issues, noise, crowding, and pollution. But the kids also experience psychosocial stressors like crime, family turmoil, and residential instability.

“Parts of the brain may change in children who grow up in poverty, leading to less efficient control and regulation of some cognitive and emotional processes than their wealthier peers.”

MK: How does constant exposure to such stressors impact the developing brain?

GE: The physiological response systems that are designed to handle relatively infrequent environmental stressors become overwhelmed for disadvantaged children. There is good evidence that parts of the brain linked to executive control — involved in coordinating things and keeping everything organized — are sensitive to chronic stress. Structurally as well as functionally, these regions may change in children who grow up in poverty, leading to less efficient control and regulation of some cognitive and emotional processes than their wealthier peers.

At the same time, other parts of the brain tied to automated, quick responses to stress and emergencies like the amygdala become over-developed and over-activated. So you have this bad mix of heightened emotional responses coupled with less regulation and control.

MK: Recently, you published a study on the link between childhood poverty and adult psychological well-being. What did you find?

GE: I looked at the psychological well-being of 24-year-olds in relation to their family income when they were 9 years old, finding relationships with a number of mental health and cognitive outcomes. Childhood poverty is linked to deficits in adult memory, greater psychological/physiological distress, and higher levels of aggression.

Another research interest is how motivation and helplessness differ for those who grew up in an impoverished environment. We have given both children and adults age-appropriate tasks to persist on, and we see consistently less persistence from the disadvantaged. When challenged, they’re much more likely to give up. To me, that unfortunately fits our model — if you grow up with a lot of stressors, your environment sets you up for feeling like you don’t have a sense of mastery or self-efficacy. This is a dynamic, particularly for children, that we need to look more at.

“If you grow up with a lot of stressors, your environment sets you up for feeling like you don’t have a sense of mastery or self-efficacy.”

MK: Given your findings on poverty, what kinds of policy changes could help enhance these children’s lives? Universal basic income?

GE: Various experiments have shown that when you increase the income of families in poverty, you may get better health outcomes, better parenting, and reductions in various negative outcomes. I believe any policy approach has to increase income in a way that is predictable and reliable, coupled with more available and affordable services for these families.

“Because poverty includes a convergence of multiple risk factors and stressors, it really means multiple interventions are necessary.”

Because poverty includes a convergence of multiple risk factors and stressors, it really means multiple interventions are necessary. You can’t just provide housing or job training. You really have to look across the board. A classic example is taking people off of welfare and giving them a low-income job, which is usually right around the minimum wage. However, if there is little or no childcare, the program winds up not being nearly as effective as it ought to be. Good-quality free or heavily subsidized childcare coupled with employment or job training may work better.

A large and growing body of research shows that poor kids grow up to have a host of physical problems as adults.

Now add psychological deficits to the list, Cornell researchers say.

Childhood poverty can cause significant psychological deficits in adulthood, according to a sweeping new study. The research, conducted by tracking participants over a 15-year period, is the first to show this damage occurs over time and in a broad range of ways.

Impoverished children in the study had more psychological distress as adults, including more antisocial conduct like aggression and bullying and more helplessness behavior, than kids from middle-income backgrounds. Poor kids also had more chronic physiological stress and more deficits in short-term spatial memory.

Gary Evans, Elizabeth Lee Vincent Professor of Human Development

“What this means is, if you’re born poor, you’re on a trajectory to have more of these kinds of psychological problems,” said Gary Evans, the author of the study and the Elizabeth Lee Vincent Professor of Human Ecology, and professor in the departments of design and environmental analysis, and human development.

Why? In a word, stress.

“With poverty, you’re exposed to lots of stress. Everybody has stress, but low-income families, low-income children, have a lot more of it,” Evans said. “And the parents are also under a lot of stress. So for kids, there is a cumulative risk exposure.”

Evans, a child psychologist who specializes in the effects of stress on children, is the author of “Childhood poverty and adult psychological well-being,” published Dec. 12 in the Proceedings of the National Academic of Sciences (PNAS).

The findings are important because kids who grow up in poverty are likely to stay impoverished as adults, Evans said. For example, there’s a 40 percent chance that a son’s income will be the same as his father’s income. That’s because the United States has the least social mobility of any wealthy Western democracy, he said.

“People walk around with this idea in their head that if you work hard, play by the rules, you can get ahead,” Evans said. “And that’s just a myth. It’s just not true.”

In his study, Evans tested 341 participants, all white, at ages 9, 13, 17 and 24.

Short-term spatial memory was tested by asking adult study participants to repeat increasingly complex sequences of lights and sounds by pressing four colored pads in the correct order – similar to the “Simon” game. The adults who grew up in poverty had a diminished ability to recall the sequences, compared to those who did not.

“This is an important result because the ability to retain information in short-term memory is fundamental to a host of basic cognitive skills, including language and achievement,” Evans wrote.

Although the participants were assessed on this measure only when they were adults, this test had the strongest association with childhood poverty of the four measures.

Helplessnesswas assessed by asking the participants to solve an impossible puzzle. Adults who grew up in poverty gave up 8 percent quicker than those who weren’t poor as kids. Previous research has shown chronic exposure to uncontrollable stressors – such as family turmoil and substandard housing – tends to induce helplessness.

Mental healthwas measured with a well-validated, standardized index of mental health with statements including “I argue a lot” and “I am too impatient.” Adults who grew up in poverty were more likely to agree with those questions than adults from a middle-income background.

Chronic physiological stress was tested by measuring the participants’ blood pressure, stress hormones and body mass index. Adults who grew up in poverty had a higher level of chronic physical stress throughout childhood and into adulthood.

The study has two implications, Evans said. First, early intervention to prevent these problems is more efficient and more likely to work.

“If you don’t intervene early, it’s going to be really difficult and is going to cost a lot to intervene later,” he said.

Second, increasing poor families’ incomes is the most efficient way to reduce a child’s exposure to poverty and, in turn, their risk of developing psychological problems. Evans supports the creation of a safety net, similar to Social Security’s supplemental income for the elderly and disabled. If a family is poor and has children, the federal government should provide them with supplementary income sufficient to participate in society, he said.

“It’s not true you can’t do anything about poverty. It’s just whether there’s the political will, and are people willing to reframe the problem, instead of blaming the person who is poor and – even more preposterous – blaming their children,” he said.

“This is a societal issue, and if we decide to reallocate resources like we did with the elderly and Social Security, we could change the kind of data this study is showing,” he said.

“Could we get rid of poverty? Probably not,” Evans said. “But I think we could change it dramatically.”

The research was supported by the W.T. Grant Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the National Institute for Minority Health and Health Disparities.

Reprinted from the Cornell Chronicle, May 5, 2016

Moreno

Marcus Moreno '17

Marcos Moreno ’17 has received a 2016 Udall scholarship, which supports undergraduates with excellent academic records and who show potential for careers in environmental public policy, health care and tribal public policy.

Moreno, a human development major concentrating in neuroscience in the College of Human Ecology, was one of five health care scholars selected to receive the award. Overall, he was among the 60 candidates selected out of 482 candidates from 227 colleges and universities. The scholarship provides $7,000 for one year.

Moreno is a member of the Pascua Yaqui tribe, born and raised on the Pascua Yaqui reservation in southern Arizona. He is a pre-med student, studying neuroscience and American Indian studies, with extensive experience as a researcher.

He is currently working in two Cornell laboratories: the child development lab of Gary Evans, the Elizabeth Lee Vincent Professor in the Departments of Design and Environmental Analysis and of Human Development, and the integrative neuroethology lab of Alexander Ophir, assistant professor of psychology. Moreno has also been a part of a public health project for his tribe’s reservation in 2014, has participated in medical brigades in West Africa and has spent time volunteering in his tribe’s affiliate health clinics.

At Cornell, he is a resident adviser at Akwe:kon and a First in Class mobilizer with the Office of Academic Diversity Initiatives program to support first-generation students. He also volunteers as a tutor for Native American students from the Onondaga Nation at Lafayette Junior and Senior High School in Lafayette, New York.

Upon completion of medical school, he intends to return to his Arizona reservation as a primary care physician with a focus on the interconnections between physical and mental health.

The 2016 Udall Scholars will assemble August 9-14 in Tucson, Arizona, to meet one another and program alumni, learn more about the Udall legacy of public service and interact with community leaders in environmental fields, tribal health care and governance.

The Udall Foundation is an independent federal agency established by Congress to honor Congressman Morris K. Udall and Secretary of the Interior Stewart L. Udall. Its programs promote leadership, education, collaboration and conflict resolution in the areas of the environment, public lands, natural resources and Native nations.