What is the “single greatest threat to children’s well-being:” And how can mentoring help?

by Jean Rhodes

“The way a problem is defined determines not only what is done about it, but also what is not done—or what apparently need not be done.”  

Caplan, N., & Nelson, S. D. (1973). On being useful: The nature and consequences of psychological research on social problems. American Psychologist, 28(3), 199-211.

According to data from Columbia University’s National Center for Children in poverty, economic insecurity is the “single greatest threat to children’s well-being.” Unfortunately, after a long period declining rates, the past 15 years have seen a dramatic rise in rates of income instability and inequality. Income inequality in the U.S. is among the highest in the world, gaps that are more similar to that of developing economies than of more advanced economies. Nearly a quarter (22%) of U.S. children are growing up in families with incomes below the federal poverty line, and nearly half (45%) now live in low-income families. The Congressional budget office is projecting a growing federal deficit, which is likely to create additional pressure to curtail federal spending into education, jobs-training, and other services that could lift vulnerable youth. And our field’s growing reliance on corporate philanthropy may ultimately constrain our willingness to be full advocates for social justice and vocal critiques of policies that ultimately reduce public investment in equality of opportunity. At the same time, a growing gap in private investment in youth, with the wealthiest families investing far more to ensure the academic and economic success of their children while the lowest income studies struggle with overcrowded classrooms, insufficient enrichment and extracurricular activities, housing insecurity, and economic instability.

Mentoring programs can not compensate for growing income inequality and the loss of a public safety net.  At the end of the day, efforts to forge caring relationships is individualistic solution to what is often a societal problem. And, efforts to mobilize caring adults can only do so much to fill the widening gap between the number of mentors who are willing to make a sufficiently intensive commitment to formal mentoring programs and the number of youth who need them. It is worth noting that similar limitations in traditional psychotherapy relationships led to the emergence of the field of community psychology in the mid-1900s. As its founders argued, problems will never be treated out of existence because they are so widespread. Hence, there will always be a wide gap between the number of caregivers and the many people who are suffering from mental health and related problems. Borrowing from a basic public health tenet George Albee famously observed that, “no mass disorder in human history has ever been eliminated or significantly controlled by attempts at treating the affected individual, nor by training large numbers of individual treatment personnel.” Community psychologists also noted that a sole focus on the child can blur the broader context of poverty, discrimination, and powerless from which many social, academic, and behavioral difficulties arose. From this perspective, mentoring it is more Band-Aid than overall societal fix. But rather than despair, we must double-down and do all we can to expand the reach and effectiveness of this approach. As Malcolm Gladwell observed:

“A critic looking at tightly focused, targeted interventions might dismiss them as Band-Aid solutions. But that phrase should not be considered a term of disparagement. The Band-Aid is an inexpensive, convenient, and remarkably versatile solution to an astonishing array of problems.”

And, beyond it’s benefits to youth, there are broader social and political dimensions to our work in this field. First, mentoring programs have provided an accessible context for growing numbers of citizens to perform public service and engage in a world that extends beyond their immediate family and friendship circles. Indeed, researchers recently reported that participation in mentoring programs leads to greater civic participation, which is the best predictor of lifelong commitment (Fresko &Wertheim, 2006). And mentoring provides a lens through which literally millions can see the effects of poverty: decrepit schools with stressed teachers, unsafe neighborhoods, deteriorating, unaffordable housing, and other difficult circumstances. Studies have shown links between civic engagement and a better understanding of the lives of high-risk youth and commitment to social activity after college (Astin & Astin, 2000) as well as cultural tolerance and a deeper understanding of disadvantaged children and their communities (Hughes, Boyd, & Dykstra, 2010).  Deeply connecting with one child in poverty may provide insights and even moral outrage about inequality in ways that statistics never will.

3 Comments on "What is the “single greatest threat to children’s well-being:” And how can mentoring help?"

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  1. Craig says:

    While I agree with most of the article, for me, there is still a much more immediate/pressing issue; and that is the environment created by past and present government policies and practices. (Poor) People are reacting in a normal way to abnormal conditions created by the government that was designed to protect us.
    Poverty, mass incarceration and inadequate public schools systems were not created by the people. Poverty, mass incarceration and less than adequate public school systems were created by the people elected and appointed to hold public offices.
    Not a single person I know (and I know a lot of people) worked to create (fill in the blank with a name of your local public school). No one I know drafted legislation to wage war on drugs that ultimately jailed millions of US citizens for non-violent possession of marijuana infractions that ultimately ruined millions of lives, destroyed millions of families and once again created a vacuum of adults in poor neighborhoods which reinforced/reproduced poverty for the next generation. No one I know penned the formula to decide how much government assistance a family of four could qualify for. These and many other policies and practices were created by people working within systems who have no skin in the game.
    Two things need to happen in order to have a chance at creating a more equitable society: 1. Change/create policies and practices to create the right conditions/environments for families to thrive; 2. Change the system to best support teachers and other adults who spend most of their days with our children.
    If we can take better care of the adults who spend the most of their time with our children (parents sand teachers) then, and only then will we see a world that works for all; the world as it should be.

    Think of it this way…
    If we walked into a room that had a huge glass partition dividing the room in two halves. We are on one side of the glass and the other side others are carrying on about their business. Suddenly, people on the other side of that glass started acting ‘strange’. They start trampling one another trying to get out; they are kicking and screaming and grabbing their necks… WE would say what’s wrong with those people? Why are they hurting one another and causing harm to themselves? While our ‘environment’ is normal and we can’t possibly imagine what could be wrong with them?
    One person from our side might mention that it looks like they are having trouble breathing. Let’s get them some air, right?

    However, (in real life) so many sit and watch from positions of privilege saying what’s wrong with our inner cities? They have opportunities (not the same type and amount as me, but it’s something); they have welfare (they complain that it’s not enough, well beggars can’t be picky); they should get a job (look at me, I worked my butt off to get to and during college) why don’t they just get a job… Never thinking that most people attend(ed) sub-standard public schools that don’t prepare them for college, let alone 21st century jobs.
    Our privilege blinds us to the fact that so many people live in environments created by federal, state and local policies and practices that is cutting off the air supply in those environments. To change the behavior we must first examine and change the environment.
    So while mentoring is a great individualistic band aid we need a broader systemic approach to fix our ailing communities and society.
    I have some ideas…. what do you think?

  2. Very much appreciate your clear-eyed identification of income inequality as the driver behind the distressing outcomes for our nation’s low-income children. As an individual, I can vote and speak out against economic policies that are exacerbating the divide, but realistically, there isn’t much that most of can do to level the economic playing field. Given this upsetting backdrop, I believe it comes down to how we choose to care for one another–and how we choose to support one another in doing so. Social movements–think civil rights, women’s right, LGBTQ rights–build power through cumulative individual actions. What if we think about mentoring as a social movement? We need to lift up, support, and normalize mentoring–especially the work of natural mentors–as they care for our young people.

  3. Robin Cox says:

    And just ‘one’ young person who benefits from a mentoring relationship could be a game-changer in his or her community/country/global community. Mentoring gives HOPE where there might be a feeling of hopelessness.

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