I was reading this recent article from Science Magazine (abstract in link) and feeling wildly unprepared to apply the most recent scholarship from behavioral economics or from psychology to creating my anti-poverty course design principles. Not that the principles couldn’t benefit from such insights. For example, in the linked article above, the authors argue that “poverty may favor behaviors that make it more difficult to escape poverty,” such as privileging short term gains over long term returns (what academics call the discount rate) or avoiding risk (risk aversion). The negative feedback loop identified in the article is that poverty creates certain mentalities which then influence poor people’s decisions making capabilities in ways that only serve to reinforce actions that keep those same poor people poor.
Some might see this feedback loop as crushing, but I (and the authors), see the possibility for psychological interventions that break the risk aversion and time discounting behavior at strategic points in people’s lives. A little bit of help can go a long way. I’m reminded of an ongoing assessment project our psychology dept. is doing in coordination with a professor from the University of Minnesota. In short, there is some evidence that short interventions can reduce students overall stress rates. Watch a 15 minute video, report lower stress at the end of the semester (I’m way oversimplyfying). Put another way, well-placed mental and emotional windows that give students the view and breathing space they need to continue through what seems like a dark tunnel.
As I considered the options for interventions, and reviewed recent tweets from other professors working on poverty, I realize there is one thing this project is not: consciousness raising. I’m not trying to get people to pay attention to poor people or to rethink what it means to be poor in MN. I start from the premise that we have poor students who need better classes, and everything organizes teleologically behind that implicit goal. I keep seeing statistics about the number of kids in poverty (approximately 1 in 5) or the growing inequality between the top 20% and the bottom 20%. And those numbers matter, but I’m not trying to make a case for the poor. I’m not working from some a priori logic that if I can get people to notice poverty, they’ll want to do something about it.
I don’t know if the architects who built wheel-chair ramps and 36″ wide doorways (both important innovations in Universal Design) went around trying to convince people of the importance of treating disabled individuals as full human beings. Or if the architects just built what would allow everyone to have access to buildings, and let the consciousness rise as it would. Maybe it’s a bit of both. Still, there aren’t going to be protest songs, placards, or satirical cartoons coming out of this project to jar academics to recognize poverty in some new way. New thinking would be great, but also great would be just new action; a faculty member who looks at my list of things to do to help poor students and says “Yeah, that’s easy, I can do those.”