Combatting Generational Poverty Through Early Childhood Intervention

March 12, 2014

Conservative evangelicals stand in a particularly momentous position in the U.S. as various pressing domestic crises, conservative values, and sacred obligations converge over the issue of caring for our neighbors. This issue has taken on a greater significance as people have become more aware of wealth inequality and the lack of social mobility in our country. Our concern appears in the common refrain that the American Dream is no longer achievable for many Americans. One of the most popular “solutions” to this problem is universal preschool, which is designed to equip students to excel in school and then in the workforce.

Recently, New York Mayor de Blasio has announced plans to expand pre-kindergarten (beginning at age 4) in the city by selling bonds and taking money from charter schools. This isn’t a surprise, since universal pre-K has been one of de Blasio’s signature policies since before his election. He’s hardly the most notable politician advocating universal pre-K. Last year, President Obama announced an initiative to push for universal preschool, and when he did, conservatives roundly objected, pointing out the tremendous cost for an already over-budget federal government and the studies which have demonstrated the weaknesses in the Head Start Program.

There is a lot to criticize in Obama’s plan; it will increase our debt and will not likely improve the problem of social mobility, at least according to the research. But on the other hand, the status quo is unacceptable. As it stands, the “accident of birth is the greatest source of inequality,” according to Nobel prize-winning economist, James Heckman. And while we may object to efforts to create an “equality of outcomes,” such a dramatic disparity in opportunities for flourishing as we find between the poor and middle and upper class children is destructive.

While the rest of the country debates the effectiveness of Head Start and the tragedy of a calcified underclass, in Waco, Texas, a small Christian ministry has been sacrificially and willfully working to address generational poverty in their area by providing intensive, high quality, early childhood intervention (ECI) to the “least of these.” Their work is a model of how local churches can take up the needs of their specific communities in profoundly personal, humane, cost-effective, and gospel-driven ways which are fundamentally inaccessible for the State.

If the church in North America was to direct their benevolence resources into programs like Talitha Koum, they would effectively address (though not “solve”—nothing is that easy) nearly every major social ill which plagues our country while preventing the expansion of the federal budget. Of course, I understand the tremendous cost to the kind of project I’m describing, but when the crisis is properly understood, when we grasp what is at stake, the opportunity is astounding.

Researchers have identified a web of conditions which strongly predict whether or not a child born in poverty will succeed in moving out of poverty. Most of these conditions are related: family structure, racial and economic segregation, school quality, and social capital.

Rather than summarize the data which demonstrates how dramatically these conditions affect children, let’s consider a hypothetical scenario for a child born into a poor community.

You are born to a single mother who was herself born and raised by a single mother. Like most poor communities, there is high crime, low performing schools, and little engagement with private institutions (e.g., churches, nonprofits). Since your mother did not have a good parenting role model in her own mother, she lacks important parenting skills and knowledge. In part because of her own high levels of stress brought on by poverty, she struggles to provide you with the nurture and comfort a baby needs to bond and be sheltered from the negative influence of living in poverty. As a result, your home environment is unstructured, violent, loud, and uncertain.

From your earliest years, your brain is wired for a world of chaos. You are never taught self-control or delayed gratification, habits which your mother was never taught as a child either. She is less likely to read to you, and the number of words you hear will be drastically lower than your middle-class peers. If you are lucky, your mother has enough resources and skills to get you signed up for government assistance so that you have basic health care and food and perhaps you can begin attending a Head Start program when you are three. But by then you are already far behind your peers. You cannot self-regulate well enough in class to learn basic skills, which means when you enter kindergarten you are even further behind.

When you reach adulthood, you are less likely to have completed high school, more likely to be a single mother or have spent time in jail (for males), less likely to have a good job, and more likely to have health problems than your peers. Thankfully, at this point, a number of churches in your surrounding areas have good GED and job training programs which they devote considerable resources to, but since you are an adult, it takes a lot more effort for you to develop these skills. Odds are, your children’s childhoods will look a lot like your own.

Many pundits have correctly identified family structure as one of the main predictors of social mobility: If you are born to a set of parents who stay together, you are much more likely to be able to achieve your social goals. And so there has been a push by conservatives to stress the importance of marriage, and rightfully so. However, for people born into generational poverty, being told that marriage is important isn’t enough. They need deep, cultural, communal, and cognitive support that will equip them with the skills, habits and social capital necessary to get married for life and raise children in a healthy environment. And to be effective, these interventions need to begin at the earliest stages — 8 weeks old at the latest — when the brain begins to learn about the world, setting the neural pathways which will shape that child for life.

That is why President Obama and many others have been urging a dramatic expansion of preschool. Based on the research conducted by Dr. Heckman, advocates of universal preschool claim that for every one dollar spent on early childhood intervention, society saves eight dollars down the road in services like incarceration, increased healthcare costs, education, and entitlement spending. Even more appealing for conservatives, ECI was shown in Heckman’s work to be positively correlated with a variety of core social issues:

But there are problems with this miracle solution proposed by Obama. As I mentioned in the beginning, Head Start programs have shown only very modest benefits, hardly the kind of dramatically life-altering benefits promised in Heckman’s research. Proponents of the programs respond that Head Start has had such modest results because it is underfunded; the programs Heckman studied were much higher quality and cost a lot more. Where Head Start will cost around $8,000 per year per student, the Perry study which produced Heckman’s much touted results cost closer to $20,000.

Ideally, voluntary, early childhood interventions would be run by local organizations, ones that can keep costs down, better meet the needs of particular communities, and build more meaningful relationships with disadvantaged youths and their families. This is the model of ECI at Talitha Koum.

Begun by a very small church with several women dedicated to ministering to the poor in Waco, Talitha Koum is a “mental health therapeutic nursery.” They focus their efforts on the most needy families in the area—those who typically do not qualify for government assistance because they lack the resources or skills to apply. Beginning at eight weeks old, the children are cared for eight hours a day in small classrooms (six kids and two teachers per class) until they are ready for kindergarten. After they graduate from the program, they are paired with a local mentor who promises to help the child navigate life until they go to college or find good, full-time work. They would like to add a third leg to their work: in-home visits by licensed nurses, but it will require more funding. Currently, the foundation spends about $17,000 per child, per year—less than the Perry school but still a lot more than the proposed universal preschools.

When I visited with Susan Crowley and Donna Losak, two of the founders of Talitha Koum, I was struck by all the ways they were able to provide personal care for the children that would simply be foreign or impossible for most government programs. For example, when I asked about what qualifications teachers needed to work there, Crowley informed me that the most important characteristic they look for in teachers is a deep love for the children. They also require a bachelors degree of some kind and provide them with thorough training, but love is the necessary quality. As a private, local ministry, they also can adjust their practices based on the latest research. They can meet the spiritual needs of the kids because they are not a state agency. The children never have to lose care because their mother or father failed to fill out the appropriate paperwork or failed to look for work. At the same time, parents are encouraged to come to weekly parenting classes, where they are fed, and cared for, and encouraged. The result of this is that the workers at Talitha Koum have fostered deep, trusting relationships with these mothers, allowing them to minister to them and their children more personally and effectively.

One of Crowley’s mantras during my visit was that if the church would simply commit to caring for the needs of the most needy and vulnerable in our country for the first five years of their lives, we would have a profound impact on generational poverty. If local churches worked together to offer early childhood intervention programs, like what Talitha Koum has been doing in Waco, they would be more cost effective than the proposed state programs, but they also would be caring for the needy in more meaningful, intimate, spiritual and personal ways. And through this, they will be able to better proclaim the Gospel.

It seems inevitable that our country will try to combat generational poverty and all its great harms by investing heavily in early childhood intervention. We already see signs of the State moving towards such programs with President Obama’s 2013 State of the Union address and Mayor de Blasio’s expanded pre-K. Tragically and despite enormous costs, de Blasio’s pre-K initiative in New York will most likely have very modest results, particularly since it begins intervention at age four, so late in the child’s mental development. The question for the church is, will we allow the state to take the initiative, or will we take up this task and engender the kind of deep, redemptive healing that the state can only dream of?

Alan Noble

Alan Noble is the editor-in-chief and co-founder of Christ and Pop Culture. He is an assistant professor of English at Oklahoma Baptist University. Read More by this Author

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24