Academic workshop on children in poverty funded by Kohl Competition

With funding from the Herb Kohl Public Service Research Competition, University of Wisconsin–Madison faculty members Barbara (Bobbi) Wolfe and Seth Pollak hosted an academic workshop on neuroscience, public policy, and poverty September 27 and 28 in Milwaukee. Discussion focused on children in poverty.

Fifteen distinguished neuroscience and policy scholars from across the country discussed the potential of brain research to inform public policy that improves opportunities for children in low-income families.

“This novel research is rich in its potential for integrative policy-oriented projects that could benefit not only children, but entire families,” said Wolfe. “Our goal is to improve communication among researchers, improve the quality and depth of research, facilitate translation of research to policymakers, and increase public awareness.”

First-day discussions focused on what we currently know about how poverty influences the brain of children, how neuroscience can help policy deliberations, helping foster neuroscience-informed policy, and connecting neuroscientists with policymakers. On the second day, participants discussed the potential contributions of this type of research to policy, if this research can capture longer term or shadow effects, the areas of the brain with the greatest ability to recover from early poverty and how researchers might best make policy recommendations. The workshop concluded with participants outlining opportunities for collaboration and next steps.

Wolfe’s research broadly focuses on poverty and health issues, including projects examining whether housing voucher and public housing programs lead to better school performance of children in the household and studying how poverty influences critical brain areas among young children and these in turn influence school outcomes.

Wolfe also is investigating the influence of growing up with a sibling who is adopted or who has a developmental disability or mental illness, or a sibling who dies, on outcomes as a young adult; and the effects of early childhood general health, physical health, and mental health on long-term earnings and labor force participation.

She is the Richard A. Easterlin Professor of Economics, Population Health Sciences, and Public Affairs, and she has authored 110 peer-reviewed journal articles, dozens of book chapters and conference papers, and seven books.

Pollak, the Letters and Science Distinguished Professor of Psychology and Professor of Neuroscience, Pediatrics, and Anthropology, studies how the brain is shaped and refined by children’s early social experiences. He investigates this fundamental developmental question by focusing on children who have endured social environments that are not expected for our species.

Pollak has studied children who have been physically abused by their parents, children who have been neglected, children who have been raised in institutional rather than family settings, children whose families are living in extreme poverty, children with high levels of anxiety and depression, and children who have encountered extremely high levels of stress exposure early in their lives.

Wolfe and Pollak – affilates of UW–Madison’s Institute for Research on Poverty – are planning a public presentation about their research in 2018.

Participating were:

  • Maria Cancian, professor, La Follette School of Public Affairs and School of Social Work; faculty affiliate and former director, Institute for Research on Poverty, UW–Madison
  • Sheldon Danziger, president, Russell Sage Foundation, Distinguished University Professor of Public Policy Emeritus, University of Michigan
  • Gary Evans, Elizabeth Lee Professor, College of Human Ecology, Cornell University
  • Martha J. Farah, Annenberg Professor of Natural Sciences, Department of Psychology, University of Pennsylvania; Director, Center for Neuroscience & Society
  • Adam Gamoran, president, William T. Grant Foundation
  • Peter Gianaros, professor of psychology and psychiatry, University of Pittsburgh
  • Cheri Hoffman, director, Children and Youth Policy Division, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services
  • Pilyoung Kim, assistant professor and director, Family & Child Neuroscience Lab, Department of Psychology, University of Denver
  • Allyson Mackey, principal investigator, assistant professor of psychology, University of Pennsylvania
  • Bruce McEwen, Alfred E. Mirsky Professor, Rockefeller University; head, Harold and Margaret Milliken Hatch Laboratory of Neuroendocrinology
  • Greg Miller, professor, psychology and medical social sciences, Northwestern University; faculty fellow, Institute for Policy Research, Northwestern University; co-director, Foundations of Health Research Center, Northwestern University
  • Colter Mitchell, research assistant professor, Survey Research Center; associate director, Bio-social Methods Collaborative; research affiliate, Population Studies Center and the Center for Human Growth and Development, University of Michigan
  • Kimberly Noble, assistant professor of neuroscience and education, Teachers College, Columbia University
  • Robin Nusslock, associate professor and AT&T Research Chair, Weinberg College of Arts and Science, Department of Psychology, Northwestern University
  • Morgan Pair, master of public affairs student, La Follette School of Public Affairs, UW–Madison