Translator: Rhonda Jacobs
Reviewer: Ellen Maloney Hello!
(Audience) Hello! I am the head
of a non-profit organization, and I have been at this work a long time. And ever since I got started years ago, the world has changed,
and the work has changed, and they’ve both gotten a lot harder. You know, when I started out at this work, the way that we helped people
get out of poverty was basically to point them
in the direction of a good job. And good jobs were pretty ubiquitous,
they were pretty easy to find. Remember those days? (Laughs) You know, we would point people
to jobs in construction, or in manufacturing,
or you could go to work for the city, and, you know, you were set. And you didn’t have to have
an advanced education to get into these jobs. And when you were in them,
they paid enough to support a family. And if it didn’t pay quite enough
to support a family, well, there was a little bit of help that would be available
from the government at the edges and that would be enough to get you by. And that was great, you know,
a good way to start. But since that time,
there have been a lot of changes in the world around us. And we first started
seeing this happen a few years ago, and it kind of got tied up
in with the recession, but basically what we started to see was major changes in the kind
of jobs that were out there. Now jobs require – that pay
a family-sustaining wage – require education beyond high school. And in fact, the majority of these jobs, you have to have at least
a couple of years beyond high school if you want to get a wage
that will support a family. And in the near future it’s projected
that almost 75 percent of all jobs, will require education beyond high school. So, this is really complicating things.
It changes the dynamics. It changes the world of working
with low-income families because suddenly the work
that used to be teaching people how to prepare a resume,
or interview for a job, or find the job to apply
for the civil service list, or whatever, has become a process
of helping mostly single parents who are earning bupkus,
earning not enough to pay their rents, basically try to figure out
how to get support for keeping body and soul together; at the same time that they have to
take care of their kids; at the same time
that they have to go to school, and have to somehow
find their way with that school into a career that will support
them and their families. And this is the kind of multi-tasking,
juggling, time-consuming, never-getting-ahead,
trade-off-making kind of lifestyle that has to be sustained,
and sustained well, for years and years at a time, until these families can finally
get into those jobs. And, you know, how do you
build programs for that? How do you build programs for that? How do you build programs
for people who are, every day, saying, which do I pay,
the heat or the light bill? And what is a FAFSA, anyway? And what’s a credit
and a non-credit-bearing course? And my kid has asthma and just called me,
and I have to go get him, but I have to take a test, and if I miss another day of work
I’m going to lose my job. And what is an ultrasound technologist
or CAD/CAM specialist, anyway? And how do I even spell this? And, you know, this kind of process requires optimizing every decision
of every day, year in and year out, with not an inch tolerance to spare
for making the wrong one. You miss that test
and it could be the end. And it takes the wisdom
or the judgment of a Solomon. And it takes the data set of a Google. And it takes the persistence
of a presidential candidate, and you have to have a really good
flippin’ head on your shoulders. And unfortunately … brain science has something
to tell us about that. New emerging brain science
has something very important to tell us about that very process. Because what that brain science says is that poverty affects our heads. Povery affects our heads. Poverty affects the real wiring,
the circuitry in our brains. It changes our brain circuitry … biologically … in ways that show up on MRIs. Poverty affects what are known
as our executive functioning skills – the areas of our brain
that allow us to focus, have memory, juggle, multi-task, set goals, follow through, find Plan B. And those are the areas of the brain
that are most affected by poverty itself. And how does this happen? Well, it happens in two really,
really important ways. The first one is one that probably
all of us understand and know. When you are in the middle
of a high stress set of circumstances, and you’re trying
to make decisions and juggle, and work things wisely, and maybe something rough
has happened to you that you’re dealing with
that’s consuming a lot of your thinking, your brain gets swamped. You know, when I’ve just
backed my car into the garage and hit my husband’s tool set, that is not the time for my daughter
to be coming to me, saying to me, “Is it alright for me
to move in with my boyfriend?” (Laughter) You don’t want to be making
important decisions right in the middle
of that kind of stressful moment. And scientists tell us
that this is something that is experienced by all of us,
and it’s what we call a bandwidth tax. And our brains actually get overloaded, the circuitry gets overloaded and it compromises the quality
of decision-making in the moment. So that’s the first way. The second way
is a little bit more pernicious. If we’ve been raised in poverty, if we’ve experienced this kind of stress
for years – year in, year out, our brains actually get built differently. What happens is, we get wiring
that’s very sensitized and built very carefully
to react to stresses and dangers, but the wiring that’s responsible
for surfacing choices, weighing choices, thinking about what we want
to do in the future, and what would be good for me,
and what’s my Plan B? And the ones that are used to
having resources and weighing how
to optimize those resources, are not built out as well for people
who have grown up in poverty because guess what? The options haven’t been there. And so what happens is,
the very wiring that would allow us to be able to optimize
this very difficult process of juggling and weighing on a daily basis, how to optimize our time
and our resources, is the wiring that gets
whacked by poverty itself. The very areas of the brain that we need are the areas of the brain
that poverty compromises. So this is not good news
for people like me, right? This is not a very nice thing
for us to hear about science. So, why am I smiling? (Laughs) I’m smiling because … people like me, we can learn new things. We can re-invent the way that we work. And the biological sciences,
brain science also tells us that these very parts of the brain where the executive functioning
decisions are made, are parts of the brain that are special,
they remain plastic, they can be developed
well into old age and into adulthood. In fact, really seriously,
you can actually coach, and you can coach in ways that rebuild
the circuitry of the brain itself in ways that show up on MRIs. You actually can rebuild brain wiring. So what do people like me
do with that information? Well, we try to infuse it
into the way that we work. We try to build new coaching models
that are looking at how to create opportunities for families, for women, to start exercising these skills
and building them out, and making them stronger,
and creating this new wiring. So when you come into
our job training programs, instead of seeing people basically saying,
“How do take an interview? How do you fill out your resume?”
How do you do that kind of stuff. We do that too. What you’re going to see
is you’re going to see women who are starting the day playing cognitive gaming apps! Playing games on computers
that basically help improve memory, and focus, and decision-making skills,
and starting the day that way. And what you’re going to see
when you come into our homeless shelters, our family homeless shelters, is you’re going to see women
who are sitting down with counselors, and instead of a public housing form
being pushed across the table to them and asked to fill out
that public housing form, what’s happening with them
is that they are getting brain science-informed scaffolding that allows them to basically
array their problems, multi-sectored problems. The issues they’re grappling with
in their families, in their health, in their finances, in their career,
in their education, and lay it all out, and start to tease it apart, and think about what next step
tomorrow could I make that might leverage change
over a longer period of time. Where do I start?
What’s the next step I take? How do I begin to untangle
this Gordian knot of poverty? And this process of beginning to exercise these decision-making
and priority-setting skills happens in shelter,
and it happens over and over again, and ultimately, the goal is
that it happens when we’re not even there. And the scaffolding becomes
internal skill sets that are built over time. And lives hopefully are changed
so that families that are homeless will not go out into housing
and become homeless again. Now, I realize that what I’m telling you
sounds pretty “new agey,” kind of dreamy schemy, kind of like
something the next whack-job self-help guru with a book to sell
is trying to push at you, I realize that. But I have to tell you,
it is not that at all. There are major corporations
in the United States today selling billions of dollars
of this kind of coaching to rich college kids
who want to get into law school, who need to have
good critical thinking skills demonstrable on those LSAT tests, and they sit down, and they take
these coaching modules, and on average they move
from the 44th to the 71st percentile after they’ve been coached, and … friends of mine at Berkeley
have taken scans of their brains that show new wiring built during
that intervening 100 hours of coaching that’s demonstrable on brain scans. Not too dreamy schemey. We have neurologists across the country
in hospitals everywhere, applying these new kind of techniques in order to help people
who have post-traumatic brain disorders, or have cognitive
impairments due to aging, and this is being used in those settings
across the country as well. And in early education,
these interventions are being used to change and re-write the way
the way we work with young children to give them a leg up. So, I have to tell you,
this is being used widely, we just haven’t connected the dots
in re-writing the war on poverty. We haven’t been taking
these skills and saying, how do we begin to use them
to change low-income families’ lives? So, when we started
applying these techniques and started using them
within our own families, I, you know, you think maybe
this will give us an edge. The work is not going well, guys. In case you haven’t noticed it yet, the issues with poverty
are growing, I’m in a growing field. And we now have a quarter
of United States citizens who are receiving
income-related public subsidies. And the wait-list for housing
and childcare subsidies are years long. And government is croaking
under the increased poverty rates that we’re experiencing
in the United States today. So the work has not
been going all that great. So, we try. Four years ago, we try. We start re-writing the way
that we’re doing our work with some of the dimensions
that I told you about earlier. And funky stuff starts to happen. Stuff that we had never
seen happen before. Low-income moms living in public housing,
37 years old average when they start, people who’ve been poor a long time, graduating from community college
at twice the rate in half the time of the average community college student. Low-income moms buying their own homes
at double the rate nationally of single women across the board
of any income category. One third of these moms
getting into family-sustaining jobs of $45-$50,000 a year within three years, and still cookin’, still truckin’. Now, I look at that,
and that stuff in my long career, I have never seen before. And so, I start to think, okay,
this is not double blind here, this isn’t randomized controlled trial,
but it’s good enough for me, I’m going to keep on using this stuff. (Laughter) And so, it grows, it grows. And 80 percent of the families
that we have in shelter are working or going to school
24 hours a week, and are saving money. And 100 percent of the families that we move out of shelter
into the community are retaining their housing
for 18 months or more. Again, unheard of outcomes. So, I don’t have the holy grail here. I’m not saying that I have
the holy grail here, but I have to tell you that I’m going to keep on
using what we’ve got. Because when our moms move
into these jobs, and they get those jobs, their lives start humming. And when they get into those jobs
that these employers need filled, the economy starts humming too. And when their children see them do it, they watch and they build the skills
that they need to grow up and flower, and live the lives they’re
intended to lead, and we get to shove a wedge
in that cycle of poverty, and maybe have a chance
to stop it dead in its tracks. Moms. Families. Better lives through science, pal. It’s a good thing. (Applause) (Cheers)