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Social Problems: Continuity and Change

I turn now to examples of two US policies that are evidence-based and widely accepted as effective: early childhood intervention and employment-based welfare for low-income parents. I chose these examples because my long-time involvement in research on these topics has led me to think extensively about their strengths and weaknesses. The neurological architecture of the brain is formed in the first two or three years through a complex set of interactions between genes and experience.

In the s, policy-makers and the public became aware that children living in poverty entered school at age 5 with fewer skills than their more affluent counterparts. But we now know that developmental differences associated with family income begin much earlier than age 5. The Bayley Cognitive Assessment, a measure of overall developmental level, was administered at 9 months and again at 24 months. The zero point on the graph represents the average for children from non-poor families.

At 9 months, children in low-income families were slightly behind; by 24 months, the difference was much larger—over half of a standard deviation Halle et al. Although there are undoubtedly many reasons for these differences, the important point is that they exist; children in low-income families are already at a considerable developmental disadvantage by the time they reach their second birthdays.

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Figure 2 Disparities on the Bayley Cognitive Assessment for infants from high- and low-income families, by age of child. Source: Halle et al. The environments experienced by children in poverty affect not only early developmental progress, but also have lasting impacts on intellectual development. Poverty or low family income during the first five years of life is more deleterious for intellectual development than is poverty later in childhood or adolescence.

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In one large longitudinal study, family poverty during early childhood predicted low achievement test performance in the school years ages 6—12 ; once early childhood income was taken into account, family income during the school years was not related to achievement Votruba-Drzal, Even longer lasting effects were established in the Panel Study of Income Dynamics PSID , a longitudinal study that has been following families since Although poverty in the early years also influences social behaviour—both positive and problem behaviour—there is less evidence that its effect occurs during a sensitive period.

For example, income in both the early years ages 0—5 and middle childhood ages 6—12 had cumulative effects on behaviour problems at ages 7—12 Votruba-Duzal, Similarly, in the PSID, poverty in adolescence predicted adult psychological distress, arrests and non-marital child bearing, even with earlier poverty controlled Duncan et al.

The mechanisms by which low-income environments affect early development are just beginning to be understood. The model reflects the fact that we have finally discarded simplistic nature vs nurture concepts, as investigators demonstrate some of the biological mechanisms by which genes are translated into observable characteristics through complex interactions of biological and environmental influences. In the US and the UK, early intervention has been one policy response to the evidence regarding the importance of early childhood experiences.

In the US, Head Start was launched in as a large federal program to enrich the experiences of children about to enter school, and it continues 45 years later. During the same time period, a number of demonstration programs, primarily for children in the 3—5 year old age range, were undertaken to gain better understanding of what types of intervention might be effective.

In many cases, the evaluations of these programs were random or quasi-random assignment experiments, allowing comparisons of children who had access to the interventions with comparable children who did not. I cannot do justice to the large body of research investigating the effects of these preschool interventions, but two generalisations emerge.

First, carefully designed intensive interventions can produce improvements in school achievement and social behaviour. Across 20 studies reviewed by Karoly, Kilburn, and Cannon , school achievement for children in the intervention programs was superior to achievement by control group children. The average difference was about one-third of a standard deviation. Two of the most carefully studied programs, the Perry Preschool Project and the North Carolina Abecedarian Program, had lasting effects on educational attainment, labour market participation and, in one case, reduced crime, well into adulthood Karoly et al.

Economic analyses of these interventions consistently show long-term positive cost—benefit ratios Heckman, ; Karoly et al. Large-scale national programs such as Head Start produce more modest positive effects, and there is considerable debate about the duration of the initial advantages produced by the program.

By the end of the year, children in the Head Start group especially 3-year-olds had better language and literacy skills, fewer behaviour problems and better health, and received less harsh parenting than control group children Administration for Children and Families [ACF], , but most of the differences were no longer evident by the end of first grade ACF, Some commentators interpret these findings as evidence that Head Start in its current form is ineffective, but others point out that the study design was corrupted by the fact that many children in the control group attended preschool programs, including Head Start programs that were not part of the study.

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Perhaps age 3 is too late to begin. One of the most effective demonstration programs was the Abecedarian study in North Carolina, in which children were given high-quality full-time child care from the age of six weeks to kindergarten entry Campbell et al. Sure Start is a community-based intervention in the UK providing a broad range of services to low-income families.

Scholars and policy-makers have been persuaded by this evidence that early interventions are a good societal investment because they reduce the disadvantages associated with poverty during the first five years of life. Nonetheless, early interventions alone do not and probably cannot solve many of the problems associated with poverty.

Policy-makers in the US and other developed countries have confronted three basic facts over the 20th century: a earnings are the principal source of income for the great majority of families everywhere; b single-parent families, especially those headed by single mothers, are much more vulnerable to poverty than are two-parent families; and c the demands of employment conflict with child-rearing responsibilities, making it difficult for a parent to do both.

In most of the 20th century, policy responses to this information typically involved providing income and in-kind assistance e. In the United States and elsewhere , this approach became less viable over time, in part because it typically did not raise single-mother families out of poverty and in part because mothers of young children from all economic groups were entering the labour market in larger and larger numbers.

Race also played a role. Although the majority of recipients were white, the public image was an urban African-American woman with numerous children born out of wedlock Quadagno, Ultimately, the emphasis of US welfare policy moved away from offering meagre support to parents who were not working towards encouraging employment. In the s, both carrots, in the form of earnings supplements, and sticks, in the form of sanctions and time limits on benefits, were instituted to promote this goal.

As the winds of policy change began to blow in the s, a number of large, random-assignment studies were initiated to test the types of policies being discussed in the US. The policy features examined included mandatory vs voluntary participation in job search, job training, time limits on eligibility for cash benefits, earnings supplements and enhanced child care assistance. People with preschool children probably encountered more difficulties in reorganising family routines and arranging satisfactory child care, especially at short notice, than did those with school-aged children.

These welfare and employment experiments are consistent with the longitudinal studies described above in suggesting that the effects on children vary by child age. The most positive long-term effects of increased income and centre-based child care on later achievement and intellectual development occurred for children in the preschool years 3—5 years old. New Hope was one of the experiments in the Next Generation group of studies, but it differed from the welfare studies in goals and philosophy.

It was a community-initiated poverty-reduction demonstration program in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, based on the assumption that poor people want to work and that public policy should provide work supports enabling them to do so. The underlying theory of the causes of poverty was more interactionist than those of most welfare programs, attributing poverty at least partially to the economic and structural conditions that lead to low wages.

For people who worked full-time 30 hours a week , it offered earnings supplements that would bring their income above the poverty threshold, child care subsidies, and health care subsidies. Project representatives provided respectful assistance to help people find jobs, organise child care, and the like.


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If a participant could not find a full-time job, the program offered access to community service jobs that paid the minimum wage and entitled the individual to New Hope benefits. The organisers of New Hope intended it to be a model policy that could be adopted on a large scale. To make their case, they contracted an independent research organisation, MDRC in New York, to undertake an evaluation using the most stringent research method—random assignment. Both men and women were eligible, whether or not they had children.

Applicants who met these criteria were assigned by lottery to be in either the New Hope group that could access the program services, or in a control group that could not. Both groups could use other services in the community. Of the 1, adult participants in the New Hope study, had at least one child aged 1—10 years at random assignment.

Our research team studied the progress of those children over eight years after random assignment. The New Hope benefits were available for three years, so our evaluation tested effects on children during and after the treatment group had access to those benefits. Thomas Weisner, an anthropologist who was part of the New Hope team, directed an ethnographic study that gathered repeated intensive qualitative interviews and observations among a randomly selected subset of 44 program and control group families in order to provide a complement to the large-scale quantitative assessments.

Two years after random assignment, children in New Hope families, compared to those in control families, had better achievement, higher levels of positive social behaviour i. Many of these differences were maintained after the New Hope program ended Huston et al. New Hope was an intervention with adults; why did it affect their children?

Two pathways are supported in our analyses. Reduced poverty would be expected to increase resources for children and enhance their developmental opportunities. Participants talked frequently about the supportive environment in the New Hope offices, noting that representatives returned phone calls, offered useful information, and were available.

One person said that the staff wanted you to succeed, contrasting them with the welfare office where they wanted you to fail. Advocates for children and policy-makers were understandably alarmed about potential dangers for children if their single mothers were required to get and maintain employment.

Both were partially right and partially wrong. Overall, the experiments that tested policies requiring employment, even without additional income or centre-based care, showed very few deleterious effects on children. There are two important caveats to these generalisations. First, the studies took place during a period of relatively low unemployment, raising questions about additional barriers faced by single mothers whose low levels of education and skills make them non-competitive in an economy with fewer available jobs.

Positive effects on achievement in elementary school were most consistent for children in their preschool years aged 3—5 years old when their mothers entered the programs. Positive effects on social behaviour were most likely for children in the early school years at program entry. Negative effects on achievement and minor delinquent behaviour occurred for those in early adolescence between about 11 and 13 years at program entry Morris et al.

We have little information about the effects of these programs on infants and very young children under the age of 3 years. As the results of these experiments were emerging during the s, policy changes were already occurring. Although some commentators attributed these patterns to changes in the welfare laws, several conditions coincided, making it difficult to single out one cause.

First, unemployment rates were low, and jobs were fairly easy to find in most places. Second, during the same period that the welfare law was revised, work supports for low-income parents were expanded. The two types of anti-poverty policies I have described here—early intervention and work-based programs for adults with low incomes—are among those considered most successful by scholars and policy-makers alike.

Yet, both have produced only modest successes. Quality early interventions improve school performance by about one-third of a standard deviation, a result that is impressive but does not close the poverty gap. New Hope produced about one-fourth of a standard deviation improvement in school achievement, but gains gradually faded. We can do a better job of creating effective policies by clarifying our theories of change; that is, the conceptual frameworks describing the causes of poverty, and the very definition of poverty itself.

Such theories are typically not well articulated by policy-makers or by anyone else , although they are implicit in the rhetoric and discussions of policy goals and choices.