Today, more than one in five American children live in poverty. How, if at all, to intervene is almost invariably a politically fraught question. Scientists interested in the link between poverty and mental health, however, often face a more fundamental problem: a relative dearth of experiments that test and compare potential interventions.And what was the result?
So when, in 1996, the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians in North Carolina’s Great Smoky Mountains opened a casino, Jane Costello, an epidemiologist at Duke University Medical School, saw an opportunity. The tribe elected to distribute a proportion of the profits equally among its 8,000 members. Professor Costello wondered whether the extra money would change psychiatric outcomes among poor Cherokee families.
When the casino opened, Professor Costello had already been following 1,420 rural children in the area, a quarter of whom were Cherokee, for four years. That gave her a solid baseline measure. Roughly one-fifth of the rural non-Indians in her study lived in poverty, compared with more than half of the Cherokee. By 2001, when casino profits amounted to $6,000 per person yearly, the number of Cherokee living below the poverty line had declined by half.
Just four years after the supplements began, Professor Costello observed marked improvements among those who moved out of poverty. The frequency of behavioral problems declined by 40 percent, nearly reaching the risk of children who had never been poor. Already well-off Cherokee children, on the other hand, showed no improvement. The supplements seemed to benefit the poorest children most dramatically. . . . She and her colleagues kept following the children. Minor crimes committed by Cherokee youth declined. On-time high school graduation rates improved. And by 2006, when the supplements had grown to about $9,000 yearly per member, Professor Costello could make another observation: The earlier the supplements arrived in a child’s life, the better that child’s mental health in early adulthood.There is a lot of despair about what we could do to help poor people break the multi-generational cycle of poverty, but one answer seems to be, give them enough money to lift them out of poverty.
What's more the evidence from the Cherokee study suggests that such a plan might pay for itself; the amount saved by various governments in terms of fewer grades repeated, fewer young people going to jail, less unemployment, and less drug addiction seems to be more than the total amount paid out in subsidies.