Tuesday, June 3, 2014

How cognitive science can improve housing programs

Developing solutions through research
by Maya Brennan, Center for Housing Policy

Sometimes answers to housing policy questions lie in unlikely places. Recently, I found myself looking to neuroscience and psychology journals to understand the underpinnings of success for the Family Self-Sufficiency program and other housing-based economic self-sufficiency programs. What do neuroscience, psychology, and the like have to do with FSS? Let’s start at the beginning.

Residents with housing assistance have lived through a lot. The average household income of HUD-assisted renters is around $13,000 per year, and half are racial minorities. Waiting lists for assistance are long (and often closed), which means families may have spent years in a daily economic struggle – made worse by limited options in safe neighborhoods. There is a decent chance that the men, women and children receiving HUD assistance have faced major challenges including persistent poverty, exposure to traumatic events, or repeated experiences of social bias.

Poverty, trauma, and social bias can have long-lasting effects on the brain. Patterns of brain use strengthen certain pathways and weaken others. The high-stress, reactive nature of life in persistent poverty leads the brain to prefer ‘fight-of-flight’ impulses over longer-term goals and decision-making processes. A highly reactive brain can make it very difficult to create or follow a plan to make economic progress – and so the poverty trap begins.

But these harms, like a physical injury, can be repaired with re-training efforts. Regular reinforcement of longer-term thinking patterns, such as by offering interim feedback and intensive coaching, can help individuals restore cognitive balance well into adulthood. On the flip side, reinforcement of high-stress, reactive behavior patterns can make escaping the poverty trap more difficult, which suggests that unrealistic time limits and work requirements may not lead people to work harder, but instead lock the door on their longer-term potential.

After understanding how cognitive science can affect housing programs, what’s next? Housing authorities, armed with this knowledge and a set of five guiding principles, can help right the wrongs of persistent poverty, trauma, and social bias. They can achieve this through adopting or adapting an FSS program, using partnerships to add capacity and expertise and evaluating their existing programs and rules with an eye to reducing residents’ ‘fight-or-flight behaviors’ – all without necessarily breaking already-strained budgets.

At NHC, we believe strongly in linking the housing community with other fields, and we recognize the value of translating research into practical guidance and tools. Our latest report is another example of this line of thinking – even though it comes with a lot of new cognitive science vocabulary.

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