Poverty: ending the cycle

MontrealGazette.com – entertainment/theatre – A 36-year study by Concordia University looks at the cycle of poverty through three generations of Montrealers
December 18, 2010.   By Donna Nebenzahl, Freelance

Christmas was a trip to the Salvation Army for Sarah Cote and her siblings – if she was lucky. “My father is a heroin addict. We had a single mom who worked as much as she could, raising three kids and working at a minimum wage job,” says Cote, now 30.

She recalls taking just one family trip during her entire childhood, and that was because her mom’s boyfriend at the time paid for it. “If we wanted things, we had to buy them ourselves,” she says. “I’ve been working since age 13.”

Everybody knows that poverty is tough, that it is often at the root of lack of education, drug abuse, even violent crime.

But everybody doesn’t know why. Peeling back the layers of poverty has been a career’s work for psychologist Lisa Serbin and her colleagues, the drivers behind Concordia University’s 34-year Longitudinal Risk Project.

Since 1976, at the university’s Centre for Research in Human Development, a group of academics have been surveying and studying three generations of Montrealers. The project started with 4,000 children in 22 inner-city Montreal schools in lower socio-economic areas, looking for predictors of health and development, and the transfer of risk from one generation to the next.

The researchers followed the children and their parents, and when the children became parents, they followed the third generation as well -studying mental health, childhood aggression, emotional stability, parenting skills, and more.

One thing they know for sure.  “Poverty causes trouble,” Serbin says. “It limits education because if your parents don’t finish school, then it’s less likely you will.”

These researchers talk about the concept of “unpacking poverty,” she says. “We ask, ‘Why does it have a bad impact?’ ”

For starters, people who live in poverty don’t have material resources, she points out. “They’re without proper housing and quality of food, and there is an effect on nutrition and on brain development.”

In addition, poverty affects social resources, especially if the community in which you live is crowded and sometimes dangerous. “Often people work long hours,” she says. “We know that social support is important for child rearing -well, your needs are even greater when you’re poor.”

Then there’s the physiological effect of living with constant worry, without support and often without hope. “It creates long-term, chronic stress,” Serbin says.

“Being a single mother or being on welfare is not a comfortable way to live. Over time the stress affects physiology and behaviour,” she says. “It wears you out, and can deplete your immune system. This is one of the reasons we see poverty having a big impact on health.”

Cote, whose life story mirrors that of many of the subjects of the Concordia study, was caught up in the cycle of poverty. She dropped out of high school then, in her early 20s, she got pregnant. She was also heavily addicted to cocaine.

“For me, it has lot to do with lack of self-confidence. It was a feeling that I’m not worthy, like I should be in this position, I should be poor. It’s humiliating, when you’re in poverty, to ask for help. To walk into a food bank was difficult. I was embarrassed.”

In 2006, because of her addiction, Youth Protection removed her two small children from her care.

The study also raised flags around mental health. Though not seen in the majority of participants in the study, mental health issues were found to be greater in this disadvantaged group than in the population at large.

The risk triad for mental illness includes high levels of stress, lack of school competence as well as interpersonal competence, says Alex Schwartzman, director of the Longitudinal Risk Study.

“We found in general that high aggression was predictive of seeing a psychiatrist by the time you’re 35, in 50 per cent of females and 40 per cent of males,” says Schwartzman, who has been with the study since its inception.

As well, those who were considered highly withdrawn and were not liked by their classmates were also at risk for developing mental illnesses. In both cases, “stress was a main factor.”

And if mothers are overwhelmed or stressed, their mental health issues can prevent them from being effective and present parents.

“If the mother’s mental health is poor, how can she ‘scaffold’ effectively?” asks Serbin, referring to the learning process in which a parent helps a child develop cognitively and emotionally through playing, talking or reading to them.

In one simulation conducted with colleague Dale Stack and graduate student members of the team, researchers looked at whether the parent was able to give the child cognitive support while doing challenging puzzles. During a visit to participants, the mother was told how to do the task alongside the child. “The puzzles were meant to develop intellect, so they were a little hard,” Serbin says.

Often, after a few minutes, the mothers would go off task, sometimes check their watches or sit doing nothing. “People got bored and stopped,” she says. “One mother got so frustrated she said to the child, ‘You do yours, and I’ll do mine.’ ”

“They didn’t know how to give structure, or to have empathy and understanding.”

In other cases, however, the mother’s reactions were in tune with the child, cognitively and emotionally. “They were responding, smiling,” Serbin says. “If that pattern was developed over time, this scaffolding by the mother will improve the child’s problem solving.”

Examining the entire picture in this way, the researchers have realized that richness in a child’s environment -either through objects like puzzles and books, or outings to the playground or the library -will bring stimulation to the home and translate into a head start at school.

Because education, they say, is the leader when it comes to improvement across the generations.  “Education is a powerful predictor of success,” Serbin says.

The researchers note that education itself has changed -when the study began in 1976 with parents in their 30s and children age around six, most mothers stayed at home and the fathers likely had a Grade 8 education.

“The next generation,” Schwartzman says, “grows up at a time of health reforms, compulsory education, the beginning of CEGEP and parental leave -all of which transformed society -against a backdrop of changing family structure, more single parents.”

The third generation, growing up right now in this technological society, has no bright future without high school, Serbin says.  “Lack of education causes huge barriers, and these kids have a lot farther to go than others,” she says, “because they come from backgrounds with little education and stimulation.”  So is it any wonder that the dropout rate isn’t budging? Serbin asks.

“(Premier Jean) Charest talks about parents providing support, which is great. But how do you enable parents to do that?”

We need to teach parents the skills and offer them programs and support, so they in turn can support their children academically, she says. If poverty places parents in acute stress, how is it possible for them to help their children without outside support?

Losing her children was life-changing for Cote. “When my kids were taken, it really opened my eyes,” she says. “I did not want to live a life like my parents. I wanted to make some positive changes for my kids and be a good mother.  “So I did the opposite of everything I knew.”

She went into treatment, got sober and her children were returned six months later. Then she enrolled in the Young Parents Program at Head and Hands, an N.D.G. resource for youth, and connected with others and the community. “I started volunteering there and helped make lunches for the young moms,” she said. “Once you know people, it’s that much easier to know where the services are.”

She kept on going to activities, volunteering, then enrolled as a mature student at Concordia University, where she took parenting classes and got involved at the Concordia Student Parent Centre.  “I’ve been in school for three years now, studying applied human science,” Cote said. “I want to work with children and addiction.”

“One of our big recommendations is to move heaven and Earth to keep kids in school -especially girls who get pregnant,” Serbin says. “Keep them in school. Get them back to school if they’ve left. Tailor programs for young mothers.”  Dropping out of school is a tragedy for young mothers and for their children, because those children are likely to develop certain attitudes toward school, she says.

“We’ve got to do a better job of identifying children who are struggling, right away, to improve our screening and our services,” she says.  “We have to teach basic literacy skills for the entire class, and then see which child isn’t responding to that. We don’t do these things.”

For Cote, the mindset of poverty was hard to shake.  “I did a lot of work on myself, saw some therapists,” she says. “And I’ve been really active in my kids’ development; Reilly-Miranda is now six and Madison-Rose is four.”

Feeling that her oldest girl lived through too much trauma earlier in her life, Cote decided she needs the support of a small, private school where she will receive extra attention. “I’m investing a lot into her education,” she says. “The family allowance that I receive goes entirely to her schooling.”

She has started a small cleaning business and is getting through school on loans and bursaries.  “I want to change every aspect of that part of my life,” she says. “I feel I’ve been given a second chance at life. ”

This Christmas, for the first time, she didn’t get a charity gift basket. “I don’t need one. This year we’re baking cookies and making Christmas cards and ornaments. We want to give, rather than receive.”

Their research has shown, says Stack, that a healthy relationship between parent and child is the foundation of future relationships. “A lot of our findings suggest the importance of communication, of being sensitive and responsive.

“Parental support of children is so important for positive outcomes, as is social support of parents.”

At the root is the most important change of all, Serbin says. “Let’s find a way to get rid of family poverty.”

donnanebenzahl@videotron.ca

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1 Comment

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