Blind spot on poverty in child development research

Last updated: 09-28-2020

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Blind spot on poverty in child development research

Amidst the intertwined pandemics of COVID-19 and racism, something unprecedented should be happening in research on poverty and children’s development. Scholars should be looking in the mirror and starting to see their blind spots regarding race and racism. Scholars of color (who are in the minority) have been aware of this for years. Others are only just starting to see how their own training hinged on certain models that are White and WEIRD (Western, educated, industrial, rich, Democratic). They are starting to see how their own mentors reinforced privilege by allowing access to pipelines of opportunities that looked like their own. They are beginning to understand how their own research about “others” (i.e., people from places, experiences, and histories unlike their own) hinges on theories, methods, and importantly, assumptions that excluded the realities, experiences, and expertise of the very people being studied, particularly with respect to race and racism.

Blind spots are hard to see; by definition, they are about omission. Yet blind spots – such as clinical color blindness, overlooking issues of race and racism, or consigning race to a static variable – contribute to the creation of future scholarship and science, and to the fostering of explanations that can be terribly misguided. Such blind spots are harder still to address. Training and education – our typical responses — are only as effective as accepting what is reflecting back from the mirror and our efforts to continually shift and re-shift those reflections.

Historically, the neglect of race and racism in research on poverty and child development has been shaped by denial and fear of race — as immutable – carrying the burden of explaining poverty. This neglect is shaped by over-application of models that reinforce notions that being poor is less a condition of society and more a condition of being a member of a lesser-than-non-White group, whether Black, Latino, or indigenous in the U.S. context. And scholars with good intentions unintentionally began practicing “assimilationist” racism, preferring to ignore the issue rather than face it head on. The recent publication of Lawrence Mead’s “Poverty and Culture” in a peer-reviewed journal showed that, 50 years after Senator Daniel Moynihan’s report, The Negro Family: The Case for National Action, all these blind spots are surprisingly alive and well in poverty research.

How can family and child development scholars build a dynamic and resilient world view and a professional architecture to directly address race and racism in their research? How can scholars disrupt the perpetuation of inaccurate ideologies, and recalibrate power imbalances to optimize discourse and guide policy?

First, scholarship of and for children and families should stay grounded in lived experience. Data, whether in the form of numbers or words, do not emerge free of history and context; history and context should be the starting point. The lived experience of families in poverty intersects with experiences of race, immigration status, and the structures and systems that perpetuate exclusion and racism. At the same time, lived experience is the daily routines, survival strategies and resistance to oppression that parents, caregivers, workers, educators, and children and youth engage in every day. Research on poverty should be enriched by greater integration of quantitative, qualitative and mixed-methods literatures on intersectionality; racial socialization and identity; experiences of and responses to discrimination; representation, racial composition, and intergroup relations in  the contexts of work, schools, and media, and funds of knowledge and traditions of socialization in racially, linguistically, and culturally diverse communities. This list can go on. These areas of research are robust and growing, each typically with both basic developmental and applied/intervention studies. Research on mainstream poverty needs to change and view these emerging areas as core, not neglected.

Second, as scholars, we can surround ourselves in authentic ways with others who are outside our inner disciplinary circles, ask for and be open to accepting authentic critiques, and strive toward richer research questions that may generate more powerful implications. Poverty scholarship can go deeper than controls for race, considering it a fixed and context-free characteristic. How can experiences of racism at household, neighborhood, structural, or policy levels be integrated into policy research on poverty and child development? Would our proposals for anti-poverty policy be more effective if they integrated attention to racial segregation and other disparities by race in opportunity and social mobility? We can be much bolder in straying from conventional silos and daring to cross disciplines and levels of analysis. Race and racism are inherent at all layers of Bronfenbrenner’s ecological model, from macro-level structures to micro-level interactions. But because poverty researchers and race researchers largely do not overlap or collaborate, a number of novel questions are neglected. What would it mean to address structural sources of racism in tandem with other areas of anti-poverty policy? Can social movements change the linked and mutually reinforcing narratives around race and poverty?

Third, scholarship can and should start with understanding and questioning existing assumptions and pushing toward changing these defaults. Are we assuming that every child is born on a level playing field even though Black-White racial differences in household wealth are large and constrain the ability of Black families to respond to economic shocks? Are we naïve in assuming that enhancing income — the conventional realm of safety net policies – is enough to address intergenerational disparities of wealth, without concurrent efforts to adjust the many tax and transfer policies that disproportionately benefit the wealthy?

Fourth, we can diversify the poverty policy and scholarship research “workforce.” At any established public policy and social science, population, and developmental science research conference where poverty scholars convene, you witness a sea of White people, sometimes predominantly White male people. Contrast this with convenings focused on race, ethnicity, or immigration and child development: You see scholars who are closer to representing the diversity of the United States. A much more robustly diverse pipeline of scholars across disciplines is required. Fellowship programs recently initiated by the Russell Sage Foundation, and those set up years ago by the Foundation for Child Development, the American Psychological Association, and the National Institutes of Health, are important first steps toward diversifying the pipeline of scholars, but are only a start (and will fail as a singular source of interventions). If admissions to graduate training programs; hiring processes in research institutions and universities; and the topics of research valued in curricula, departments, and peer review do not change priorities, we will continue to see the artificial and ultimately harmful divide between research on poverty and race among both scholars and scholarship.

Fifth, we can be louder and more active in our universities as we pursue or engage in external funding, in our roles as peer reviewers and editors, and as participants and leaders of professional organizations. Scholars who have profited from existing systems can and should demand more change toward inclusion. This opportunity to lead brings together the substance, messages, and models, explicit and implicit, conveyed by our research. This is an opportunity to step away from privilege and question how the public profile and output of your work is framed through an anti-racist lens. This is also an opportunity to create mechanisms – publishing avenues, grants, forums for speaking engagements — that were previously closed.

Addressing race and racism in research on poverty and children’s development is going to be hard. However, the rewards will be full and rich, and will ultimately increase the impact of developmentally informed anti-poverty policies and practices. Our work will otherwise stagnate if we continue with siloed and segregated approaches, dipping into the same tools and perspectives that have shaped poverty research to date. That is, if we do not actively strive for change now, anti-racist poverty policy will not make progress. With such progress, we will be better positioned to overcome inequality in race and income, instead of chaotically reacting to public health and economic shocks like those triggered by COVID-19.

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