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Research: "Tough Love" Not Always Best Path to Self-Sufficiency

IMAGE: New research finds that applying lessons from brain science can help economic self-sufficiency programs better support clients and reduce their reliance on public assistance. Image courtesy National Housing Conference
IMAGE: New research finds that applying lessons from brain science can help economic self-sufficiency programs better support clients and reduce their reliance on public assistance. Image courtesy National Housing Conference
June 13, 2014

COLUMBUS, Ohio – Ohioans' success using housing assistance programs to get back on their financial feet may not depend entirely on their work ethic.

A new report from the National Housing Conference has found poverty and stress can trigger a biological response in some people that creates difficulties in decision-making.

Report author Maya Brennan said it's a problem seen by Public Housing Authorities, whose clients typically are very low-income families, often on waiting lists for years and struggling to get by in troubled neighborhoods.

"Fight-or-flight and impulsive behaviors take precedence over longer-term, focused reasoning, which can make it very, very hard for families to escape poverty," she said. "Basically, the brain sets them up into a trap that makes economic progress harder and harder."

Her research suggests these programs are most effective when they focus on the clients' personal goals, reinforce their progress, address setbacks realistically and provide intensive coaching. The Public Housing Authority's Family Self-Sufficiency program is offered in several Ohio communities.

Brennan said the programs also should work to minimize stress and avoid punitive approaches, such as adding time limits or work requirements.

"Those sorts of things we sometimes of think of as 'tough love' and enough to get someone started," she said. "But if it's a person whose brain is already subject to this impulsive-thinking pathway, that sort of added stress may be enough to just freeze the capacity to do anything."

Brennan said the research shows using brain science to help clients can stretch housing assistance, help more families and reduce the need for other types of public assistance.

"All of this is part of righting the wrongs of poverty and trauma and bias that affect so many households," she said, "and making the government systems function more effectively and at a lower cost, hopefully, in the future."

She said the Public Housing Authorities also should build on community relationships with educational, workforce-development and charitable organizations.

The full report is online at nhc.org.

Mary Kuhlman, Public News Service - OH