Towards social policy rooted in social networks (the IRL kind)

It’s 2059. The results of a study on the ability of genetic engineering to help poor kids escape poverty are out and they’re not pretty. It turns out that even a high IQ can’t overcome structural inequality.

Or, at least that’s the scenario presented as part of a new oped series from the Times, which asks writers to imagine what issues we’ll face in the future and to opine on those issues as if we were debating them contemporaneously.

What struck my attention about this first piece by science fiction writer Ted Chiang, however, wasn’t the envisioned normalcy of designer babies or even that structural inequality remains (though both of these are deeply troubling). It was the implication-by-omission that even in the future we still don’t recognize the importance of social networks and communities to individual wellbeing. We still fall into the “resources trap,” the logical fallacy of thinking that more money alone is the answer. Chiang writes (emphasis added):

This is not to say that the genes associated with intelligence play no role in creating successful individuals — they absolutely do. They are an essential part of a positive feedback loop: When children demonstrate an aptitude at any activity, we reward them with more resources — equipment, private tutors, encouragement — to develop that aptitude; their genes enable them to translate those resources into improved performance, which we reward with even better resources, and the cycle continues until as adults they achieve exceptional career success. But low-income families living in neighborhoods with underfunded public schools often cannot sustain this feedback loop

Resources absolutely matter. We should fund schools more. But we should also focus on fostering social capital around those schools to make the deployment of those resources more successful. For example, we might support teachers and students not just with supplies, but with mentors, counselors, and social workers, plus job opportunities for parents who need them.

Coincidentally — back in the present — on the same day that the oped from 2059 ran, so too did another one from Bob Rubin, the former treasury secretary, and Ken Davis, president and CEO of Mount Sinai Health System here in New York. Laudably, Rubin and Davis were writing to call attention to the United States’ underinvestment in social services relative to other industrial nations and how this leads to higher healthcare spending. But in proposing solutions, they too fell into the resources trap (emphasis mine):

[T]he United States continues to spend a relative pittance on [social] programs. Housing programs, including rental assistance, public housing and homeless-assistance grants, account for one-quarter of 1 percent of G.D.P. Nutrition programs, such as food stamps and the Women, Infants and Children nutrition program, amount to one-half of 1 percent of G.D.P.

To be clear, I agree with them that we should be investing more to address the social determinants of health, especially food and housing for vulnerable populations. But we should be clear about what kind of spending we are arguing for. Is it just food and housing vouchers? Or is it also programs that make up for the gaps in social networks that contribute to worse outcomes?

When I read pieces like this, I think a lot about my 90-plus year old grandmother. She doesn’t see too well, but retains a fierce spirit, sharp wit, and strong desire to live independently in the modest house that she built with my grandfather back in the early 1950s. She’s fortunate: she has lots of  family to check in on her regularly and help with meals. She has someone who helps a few hours a week with chores and keeping up the house. And she even has a nurse come from her local parish to check in on her once a month. She doesn’t need food stamps or housing vouchers. (She’s privileged in this way). But if she did, my point is, how could these alone make up for the critical support provided by all these people in her life?

Fortunately, better models are available, and I’d love to see us talking about them more. For early childhood education, for example, I’m a big fan of the Harlem Children’s Zone, founded by Geoffrey Canada. Key to what makes HCZ work, isn’t just the great teachers its Promise Academies attract, the longer school days and year, or the high expectations it imbues students with (although all of these are key). It’s the support the HCZ provides to families with new children to ensure they’re hitting early childhood development goals. It’s the investments they make to rebuild the local community. It’s the healthcare, housing and nutritional services they provide to ensure children have stable family environments in order to thrive. And it’s the use of data to ensure this is working. In short, it’s not just the resources; it’s the way these resources are deployed to create a web of support designed to enable children to succeed.

For adult support services, other promising models are currently being developed in the UK. On the same day as the Chiang and Rubin/Davis opeds, David Brooks wrote about Hillary Cottam, a social entrepreneur pioneering network-based approaches to poverty alleviation. Where traditional welfare programs tend to be highly siloed and leave families in a state of ongoing dependence, Cottam’s programs are designed to empower families by enabling them to build networked, multidisciplinary teams of public servants around them.

To illustrate the power of this approach, Brooks recounts the story of Ella, a woman in her mid-30s, who herself grew up in a broken home, abused by her stepfather:

Her eldest son got thrown out of school and ended up sitting around the house drinking. By the time her daughter was 16, she was pregnant and had an eating disorder. Ella, though in her mid-30s, had never had a real job. Life was a series of endless crises — temper tantrums, broken washing machines, her son banging his head against the walls.

Even though the family was technically receiving £250,000 a year in government support, the family persisted in this state of perpetual crisis. That is, until Cottam enrolled Ella in her Life Team program, and empowered her to choose eight people from across agencies to help her turn her family’s life around. She chose people from the police, social work, and housing authority. Over the course of the subsequent two years, this team helped her avoid eviction, achieve a more stable home environment, get her kids back in regular school, and land her first office job.

In short, similar to the HCZ, the program worked because instead of thinking resources alone could fix a family, it was designed to foster a web of supportive relationships around a family that otherwise lacked them.

Case studies like these give me hope that by the time May 27, 2059 rolls around, we will have turned a corner and successfully adapted social policy to the realities of the digital economy. We will have moved from market-centric thinking to human-centric. We will have recognized the importance of relationships and connections to individual and collective wellbeing. And that through this, we will have created a society that’s more dynamic and inclusive.

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