Stop Blaming the Kids, Start Blaming Bad Social Policies

Science tells us high-risk communities change children at a biological level

Posted Oct 23, 2016

Wouldn’t it be nice if science informed political decisions? If we learned from the evidence and designed communities that made children stronger and more resilient? After all, we have the studies we need to help guide us if our goal is to create a next generation of productive young people who grow up to experience well-being and are ready and able to contribute.

Take, for example, a study of adolescents in the US conducted by Katherine Theall and her colleagues at Tulane University. They used data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey to show that the cumulative disadvantage of living in a high-risk neighborhood gets under our children’s skin and puts them at risk for a lifetime of mental and physical health problems. In fact, children from the highest risk neighborhoods were found to have a 69% greater chance of showing two or more biological markers of chronic stress than kids from less dangerous neighborhoods. That means kids from dangerous neighborhoods were facing a much greater likelihood of obesity, diabetes, and a host of anxiety and stress related disorders.

Findings like those build on the science of what is termed “allostatic load”. As we’re exposed to more and more stress, our ability to adapt becomes overwhelmed. While we may be able to cope at first, like a thermometer that regulates the heat in our homes, it the environment becomes too hostile our ability to self-regulate breaks down. We stop being able to adjust and instead have to find a new regime, or way, of coping. We stop adjusting and instead change at a physiological level. In the case of a furnace, it simply stops being able to pump enough heat into a home and the pipes freeze. In the case of a child growing up in a dangerous environment, bodily functions adapt as best they can. Children stop being able to regulate their emotions, or they rewire themselves neurologically to accommodate to the stress. Either way, what we see is a biologically driven change to an intolerable environment that makes it possible for the individual to survive (but not necessarily thrive).

The good news is that if we change the environments that surround children, the allostatic load drops and they may, with support, return to a more positive pattern of functioning. If they were a house, their pipes would thaw. Of course, it’s never that simple. When a house thaws, pipes burst. When children are removed from potentially traumatizing environments (or the environments change), the trauma may linger and prevent the child from functioning normally.

The wonderful thing about studies of allostatic load is that they remind us that much of the responsibility for successful human development is on the shoulders of policy makers, not individual children or their families. Kids adapt to whatever environments they are given. Change their context (e.g., employ their parents, prevent domestic violence, stop racism, provide health care and quality education) and they do much better because they are less stressed. In the long term that means a more productive population of adults who are able to contribute.  

It worries me that so much of our recent political rhetoric suggests that people can fix themselves, or that if we suppress problems with more police and more jails, that people will wake up and do better.

The research tells us it works the other way around. We need to first create supportive environments for our children. We need to address poverty, crime, and social inequality. At the community level, social scientists assess a community’s health by counting simple things like the ‘off-premise alcohol density’ (outlets to get booze) and the green spaces children have access to. Home ownership too is important. In other words, our children’s mental and physical health begins not just at home, or in their minds, but in the committee rooms of municipal, state and federal governments that set policies which ensure home ownership is possible, urban design is humane, and access to restricted substances is limited. As unsexy as it sounds, resilience is political.

The solutions don’t have to be radical. Just socially just. For example:

  • Stop the incarceration of young men from marginalized communities and instead invest prison dollars into job training.
  • Ensure that children from the poorest communities have access to schools that are just as well resourced as children from wealthier communities.
  • Hire enough Child Protection workers to keep kids safe.
  • When we build suburbs, build public transit so that communities can be accessible to those with lower incomes.
  • Ensure financial institutions make a profit, but that their customers are protected from exploitation.

The list of proven solutions is endless. These aren’t just good social policies. They are sound advice for raising healthy kids who will need fewer services. If you need convincing, just look around the world where there is socialized medicine, better funded schools and more equal societies. Those countries are safer, more productive and overall happier. What’s not to love about some reasonable government intervention if it means all children do better?

Rather than looking backwards to some mythical moment in history that never really provided economic security, perhaps we should look beyond our borders for examples of societies that are working well.

Beneath the rhetoric of “make us great again” is a sad truth. Only some people’s lives were ever great at all. And those raised in communities that weren’t so great were being affected at a cellular level by the lack of progressive vision of those elected to public office.