Episode 3: Dr. Nathaniel Harnett, Harvard Professor, and Clara Moore, RESULTS poverty expert, Discuss The Trauma and Ghost of Poverty

We address the travesty of child poverty.

Our hosts, Jeff and Carol, introduce each other to our listeners.

This podcast is based on Jeff’s book, “Invisible Americans.” He is a prolific American economics writer.

Carol is an Emmy-winning journalist, activist, and author. She most recently was the president of the ERA Coalition, a group devoted to amending the Constitution to protect women.

Dr. Nathaniel G. Harnett Studies the Neurobiology of Fear

Carol introduces our first guest, Dr. Nathaniel G. Harnett, and his research into the trauma of racism and poverty.

Dr. Harnett’s study in the American Journal of Psychiatry.

An article on the study featured in McLean News.

Dr. Harnett expands by describing this research as seeking to answer this key question:

“How does childhood adversity -- particularly at ages 9 and 10 -- impact brain development, particularly of brain regions that we know are important for emotional responding and emotional regulation, things that we think are involved in later mental health disorders?”

The study also looked at the disproportionate burden of adversity placed on racially minoritized children. They saw the effects of this trauma more strongly in Black children when looking at the impact that adversity has on brain gray matter volume.

These brain-region changes may relate to emotional development in the future.

Dr. Harnett’s study looked at indices related to adversity, including:

  • Family conflict
  • Material hardship
  • Amount of distinct traumatic events
  • Relative disadvantage of the child’s neighborhood

The study concluded that the more adversity a child is exposed to has more of an effect on brain gray matter volume.

It’s important for Dr. Harnett to note that this study looked at both white and Black children and found that adversity affects all kids and their brain matter.

The study further acknowledges that there is a disproportionate burden on Black children. Dr. Harnett also offers a little bit of pushback on those who say that poverty would impact children of all races equally. In a theoretical world, that may be true, but in a practical sense, racial minorities face additional adversities than other groups.

Family Income Levels Have Strong Impacts on the Brain

Income levels have the strongest unique effect on brain regions. When all the adversity metrics are measured together, family income levels are driving the effects on the brain more than any other factor.

A Note on the Data Set

Dr. Harnett draws on the Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development study that looks at 12,000 kids across the United States who were recruited at ages 9 and 10. This is an ongoing study that takes brain imaging every two years to see how adolescent brains change over time. His study accessed the data set for ages 9 and 10, and he’ll continue working with the data as it comes out.

Causality: Adversity is Causing This Decrease in Gray Matter

Host Jeff Madrick jumps in to clarify that the study says that the children’s brain are damaged because they’re suffering much more adversity, not that they live in adversity because of brain issues from other things.

Dr. Harnett agrees and asks listeners to remember that the subjects in his study are 9 and 10 years old, which means they have very little agency over their situation. They’re not in adverse situations due to anything of their own doing, and the study concludes that the great burden of adversity contributes to lower gray matter volume.

Dr. Harnett Has Hope

Host Carol Jenkins points out that these are not severe detriment to the brain and asks Dr. Harnett to expand on how he sees a way to repair these issues with gray matter.

He cites a recent study from the Journal of the American Medical Association that shows that income supplementation for Native American children:

  • Decreased cannabis use in adulthood
  • Increased financial outcomes and job prospects
  • Increased physical health markers

Addressing structural inequities will attenuate these adverse outcomes.

Poverty and Adversity Impact Specific Brain Regions

This study looks at the prefrontal cortex, the amygdala, and the hippocampus, which are regions of the brain that are important in emotional regulation, processing threats, and fear responses.

These three regions work together to protect you from legitimate dangers, but if these regions are dysregulated and dysfunctional due to traumatic experiences, trauma-related disorders can develop.

For children with lower levels of gray matter, these disruptions to the development of these key brain regions can make them susceptible to disorders later in life. But if we address the adversities when children are young, it may be possible to head off these long-term consequences.

Policies Can Support These Children

Dr. Harnett talks about two ways to approach the reduction of these impacts.

 1. The individual level: Giving children access to therapy, medications, and approaches that offer an individual ways to cope with adversity is important.

2. The structural and systemic level: As a community and country, it’s important to fix material conditions and long-standing structural inequities.

Things like the Child Tax Credit or any policy which will help parents and communities have and retain money for their kids to help support their development are going to have real and lasting change.

There is also the difficult issue of addressing racism: Policies must address the structural and systemic issues while also trying to deal with covert and overt acts of racism on a person-to-person level.

Our Second Guest is Clara Moore, Poverty Expert Focused on RESULTS

Both hosts introduce Clara Moore, highlighting her work on those who are haunted by what she calls the ghost of poverty. Jeff asks Clara’s thoughts on the Child Tax Credit.

Since Clara has a degree in policy and does work around policy, she knew that the Child Tax Credit was coming. She made calls and tried to educate people to make sure they knew how to sign up for this benefit and what it would mean for them.

But personally, Clara benefitted from the Child Tax Credit during one of the darkest times of her life. She graduated with a master’s degree in January of 2020 and was unemployed for the entire year. The Child Tax Credit took the edge of off that really tough time.

Clara also goes on to talk about how the structure of the Child Tax Credit is critical to people in poverty, especially long-term poverty. Not only does the monthly payout help families keep up with the basics and provides some security, but the refund can make a huge difference. Those living in poverty struggle to save any substantial amount of money, so having a refund of a few thousand dollars can help fund a move, a car purchase, or anything that requires a large chunk of money up front.

The Ghost of Poverty

Even though Clara was able to secure a job, she still lives right on the edge of poverty. She’s one check away from being homeless despite the fact that she has a job with benefits and seeming security.

Taking away safety nets like the Child Tax Credit impacts parents by making them that much more anxious. It prevents parents from being present with their children.

“You want to make your child feel safe, and it’s hard to make them feel safe when you don’t feel safe.”

Clara shares her lifelong experience with poverty, her initial thoughts that it was her personal failing, the anxiety and stress that comes with financial instability and poverty.

This is what Clara means when she talks bout the ghost of poverty.


Misunderstandings About Children in Poverty

Clara addresses what she thinks are the two main misconceptions that people have about children who live in poverty.

Children who are poor don’t realize they’re poor and just accept the life as it is, which makes it very difficult to break that cycle when they become adults. Many children who grow up in poverty don’t even realize there is another way to live.


The second point is that poverty is traumatic in a unique, long-standing, constant way that can be hard to explain to those who don’t have that same lived experience.

The Generational Transmission of the Ghost of Poverty

Much of Clara’s work with RESULTS focuses on eradicating generational poverty.

She talks about the historical success of federal programs that can lift people out of poverty.

This model is successful, and the Child Tax Credit showed that. However, since it has been taken away, Clara sees two main ways we can get it back in play.

1.     Leverage corporate tax cuts. Essentially have policymakers who support the Child Tax Credit refuse to pass corporate tax cuts unless those policymakers also support the Child Tax Credit.

2.     Pare down the ask. As with many things in politics, it will be impossible to get everything all at once. Clara thinks focusing on a higher benefit and getting everyone a full refund should be areas of focus.

Poverty Thrives in Isolation

Clara ends by encouraging those living in these situations to talk openly with each other and for those in community to help each other as much as possible. This will help everyone manage as we all encourage policymakers and organizations to make fundamental and structural changes.   


The Invisible Americans theme by Bridget St. John


Carol Jenkins 00:16

Hello, and thanks so much for joining “The Invisible Americans Podcast” with Jeff Madrick and Carol Jenkins. We address the travesty of child poverty here.


Jeff Madrick 00:26

There are nearly 13 million children living in serious material deprivation in America, and we don't see them. They are our invisible Americans. And we plan to change that.


Carol Jenkins 00:39

A couple of words about us. The podcast is based on Jeff's book, “Invisible Americans: The Tragic Cost of Child Poverty.” He's an economics writer, author of seven and co-author of another four books on the American economy.


Jeff Madrick 00:56

And Carol is an Emmy-winning journalist, activist, and author, most recently president of the ERA Coalition, working to amend the Constitution to include women.


Carol Jenkins 01:08

And we are longtime colleagues and friends.


The Invisible Americans theme by Bridget St. John



Jeff Madrick 01:17

Can poverty and racism change your brain structure? Nathaniel G. Harnett, PhD, is a Black neuroscientist at Harvard University whose research is focused on understanding why some people are more likely to develop brain disorders, such as post-traumatic stress disorder, after suffering a trauma. In other words, it's the neurobiology of fear.


Carol Jenkins 01:45

The trauma he's referring to in his recently published study is the trauma of racism and poverty. Dr. Harnett says his study of thousands of boys aged 9 to 10 indicates that Black boys living under the early life weight of poverty and racism can suffer structural brain changes that could interfere with later emotional development. But he believes with proper awareness and attention, this deficiency can be corrected.


Thank you, Dr. Harnett, for being with us today. We have a specific interest in child poverty and took note of your research, which has gotten a great deal of coverage and a great deal of controversy, as well already, as I'm sure you expected. I'm Carol Jenkins. Jeff Madrick wrote the book “Invisible Americans: The Tragic Cost of Child Poverty.” Describe for the layperson what this research, in your mind, proves.


Dr. Nathaniel Harnett 02:47

First of all, thanks so much for having me. It's a privilege to be here. The work that we do is focused on trying to understand really how stress impacts the brain. And part of what we did with this study was we looked at young kids about 9 to 10 years old and just asked, “How does childhood adversity --particularly at that age -- impact brain development, particularly of brain regions that we know are important for emotional responding and emotional regulation, things that we think are involved in later mental health disorders?”


And what we really want to do is understand, knowing that within the United States there's this disproportionate burden of adversity placed particularly on racially minoritized kids, like Black children, if that's going to have unique effects, specifically for that group. And so, almost unsurprisingly, we do see that adversity has this impact effect on brain gray matter volume, but you really see these effects more strongly within Black children.


And it's not because they have different brain, or there's something essentially different. What really seems to be driving that, as you would expect, is that they just have more burden of this adversity in their lives. And so part of this work to us really speaks to, A, it's not that there's some essential difference between groups. That really what it is, is that it's this social and historical burden -- what some people refer to as structural racism – that’s disproportionately shouldered on Black children that's really leading to some of these brain-region changes. And we think this is going to be important for potentially how these kids develop in the future, how that's going to relate to other emotional issues that they might have.


Jeff Madrick 04:26

Is it the intensity of hardship that accounts for the disproportion of Black children with smaller brain outcomes, as the MRI has demonstrated?


Dr. Nathaniel Harnett 04:41

Yeah, that's essentially it. We ended up looking at a number of different indices that we think are related to adversity. These includes things like: family conflict, so how much fighting is there in the home; material hardship, how hard is it for parents to put food on the table; the amount of traumas, like the number of distinct events that the kids might have gone through; in addition to a measure of how relatively disadvantaged the neighborhood is. And these sorts of levels of adversity scale linearly with brain volume. So the more adversity you're exposed to seems to have more of an effect on brain gray matter volume.


Carol Jenkins 05:18

And then did you find -- or would you find the same thing with white boys who are 9 and 10 who are living in the same kind of environment? Would their brain matter be shrunken as well?


Dr. Nathaniel Harnett 05:31

There's two important points to make here. The first is that there's a little bit of a misunderstanding of what we did in this study. We looked at both white and Black children this study, and we looked at how these adversities in general affect both groups. And so we're not saying here that the effects of poverty are specific to Black kids -- or the effects of adversity. Adversity affects all kids, white or Black. And so yeah, we would absolutely expect to see the sorts of changes in brain volume in white kids, if we only looked at the white kids. And I think that a lot of literature has only looked at white kids or predominantly white kids. It's just acknowledging the fact that there's this disproportionate burden on Black children. And that's why you see these sort of race-related effects that are driven by adversity.


The second point that I think is important to make is that it's really hard to say the context would be the same for white versus Black kids, and I think that's something that we tried to cover really hard to study is that white and Black children in this study differed on all of the measures of adversity that we looked at. And so we can imagine a situation where a white child and a Black child grow up in poverty, but it's not necessarily going to be the case that the contexts that are exactly the same, in that they might be growing up in different environments. There might be other sort of pressures, other sort of adversities that bias whether or not it's really the case that they're growing up in the same situation -- with air quotes that people might not be able to see.


So to sort of answer your question, part of what our analysis tried to get at is that in a theoretical world where all the adversity was equal, all the burdens were equal, yes, we would attenuate a lot of these differences between the groups that we saw. But it's really hard to do that in a practical sense. And so I have a little bit of pushback when people ask, “Oh, well, if you just looked at poor white people and poor Black people, would you expect to see the exact same thing?” Well, no, because there's still all these other adversities that are different between the groups.


Jeff Madrick 07:37

I think I read in your literature, but correct me if I'm wrong, that poverty is the biggest or the bigger issue among all the issues you try to measure. Am I right about that? What I mean by poverty is less income.


Dr. Nathaniel Harnett 07:53

Yeah, so the most consistent finding we had is that if we looked at all the adversity metrics and how they individually impacted these different brain regions -- and what I mean by individually is, you consider them all at once, and which one is having the strongest unique effect -- so not all the effects together, but the strongest unique one -- it's family income levels that are having the most consistent and so much stronger effects across all these brain regions. So you're absolutely right.


What part of that data suggests is that income really is having this really strong, unique effect. Just to point out, though, that it's not independent, necessarily, of all the other effects. It's just that when you account for everything, it really is income that seems to be driving a lot of this.


Carol Jenkins 08:37

So income level and racism are the big stresses for these Black boys at the age of 9 and 10. Why did you pick that particular age range?


Dr. Nathaniel Harnett 08:50

The answer to that question really is one more of convenience. So we are drawing data from the Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development study. For people that haven't heard this, this is a really big National Institutes of Health, largely National Institute of Drug Abuse, sponsored study, looking at 12,000 kids from across the United States. And they're going to be following these kids for at least, I think, eight years -- probably more than that now with other studies that they plan on doing. But the kids were recruited when they were about 9 and 10 years old.


And this was now about six, seven years ago. And they've been followed every year, with new imaging being done every two years, so that we can look at how their brains are changing over time. And so when we first got the data set, the only ages we had were 9 and 10. But now we've gotten data from when these kids were 11 to 12. Soon we'll have data from when they were 13, 14, and so on and so forth.


So we're really going to be a look and see longitudinally how are these disparities in income, these disparities in the neighborhoods that they're growing up in, all these different adversities how that might be affecting their brains.


Jeff Madrick 09:57

So the issue, just to be clear to our audience and anybody else who's listening, the level of damage to the brain you're using as an indicator of the intensity of adversity. It's not really the other way around. Am I making a mistake here, or I'm not making that clear? What you’re saying is, these kids’ brains are damaged because they're suffering much more adversity than the other group, the white kids.


Dr. Nathaniel Harnett 10:31

I think that's an important point to make, too, in terms of what I suspect some people think or try to argue is that it's not the case here that brain volume is contributing to the adversity. Again, these kids are 9 to 10 years old. They don't get to choose what environment they're in. They don't get to choose what income their parents are. They don't get to choose the hardship they're under. It's really the case, exactly what you're saying, that it's these childhood adversities that are driving these differences in brain volume. And it really is sort of the greater burden of that, the more intensity of that that's contributing to the lower gray matter volume.


Carol Jenkins 11:07

Now, if we understand your conclusions, though, is that these were not severe detriments to the imaging of their brains. You’ve felt that there is a possibility of repairing the brains that that you've seen here?


Dr. Nathaniel Harnett 11:22

Yeah, that's exactly right. As you mentioned, it's really important to note that the differences that we see between white and Black kids in the study are not that large. They're statistically significant, but when you look at the actual effect size, they're relatively small. And these kids are only 9 and 10.


And so kind of our thought is, if we can improve the context they're growing up in the neighborhoods that they're in, how much money they have, that might ameliorate some of the differences we're seeing in such that when they get older, we really don't see either any difference or as large a difference.

And that's kind of our hope. I mean, if we're going to put a value judgment to the work that we do, we really are thinking that if we want to sort of rescue these brain differences that we're seeing now, improving their material conditions, addressing the structural inequities is probably going to be the best way to do that.


Jeff Madrick 12:12

We've already seen some of that -- I think I'm right -- in the white community, that there has been improvement and reduction in brain damage. Am I wrong? I remember the early stuff coming out of Harvard, and I guess it probably started -- and this gentleman may be one of your mentors -- showed there was damage to children. But if the children were somehow rescued, to use your word, the damage could be ameliorated.


Dr. Nathaniel Harnett 12:43

I think there's quite a bit of work, particularly on what happens when you place kids into better environments. And almost abundantly, it's usually the case that they have better outcomes, whether that be physical outcomes, mental health outcomes. There's arguments made about whether or not -- how long that lasts, but I think in general, it lasts quite a bit.


There was an interesting study done recently published in the Journal of the American Medical Association showing that income supplementation to Native American individuals from when they were kids, actually decreased things like cannabis use into adulthood, increased financial outcomes. So they did -- they had better job prospects. They had better physical health. So I think exactly what you're saying, when we sort of address the structural inequities, regardless of what race we're dealing with, we really do attenuate a lot of these adverse outcomes.


Carol Jenkins 13:39

And the important thing about the places in the brain that show this decline are the ones that regulate certain emotions. Talk to us a little bit about that, why you believe that later on, you see certain behaviors and conditions, you know, in people who have experienced this toxic stress, as you call it.


Dr. Nathaniel Harnett 14:00

These brain regions that we studied, the prefrontal cortex, amygdala, and the hippocampus are really important emotion regulation regions. The way we typically approach this in our group is we think of them about how they process threatening information. The amygdala -- people might have heard of as the fear center of their brain. When you encounter a threatening stimulus, it switches on and helps to activate your body to fight or flee away from a potential threat.


The hippocampus helps you realize whether or not the context you're encountering something in is actually safe or not. So if I'm really afraid of snakes, and I hear the hiss of the snake, and I'm out in the woods, that's a potentially threatening situation. But if I'm sat on my couch watching Animal Planet, I probably don't need to be as afraid.


And then the prefrontal cortex helps to either regulate or even exacerbate the amygdala response so that you can be extra prepared for whatever threat you might be going through. As you might imagine, as we're talking about threat and safety and too much activation or not enough activation, a lot of these brain regions we see are dysregulated and dysfunctional in post-traumatic stress disorder and other trauma-related disorders. And a lot of the work that we've done now shows that variability and how these brain regions talk to one another, how they respond to stimuli, and how they're actually structurally connected to one another actually helps to underlie susceptibility to PTSD. So variability in the prefrontal cortex, amygdala, and hippocampus is related to your likelihood to develop PTSD after you've experienced a traumatic event.


And so part of what we're thinking about in what we've seen for these kids who are showing lower gray matter volume and these effects of adversity is that if you have disruptions in how these brain regions are developing now, this might lead to further augmentation of susceptibility to other disorders later in life, whether that be depression, whether that be anxiety. In terms of how you navigate the emotional world, this might have long term consequences if these sort of adversities are not addressed.


Jeff Madrick 15:59

What is the first policy you would recommend, given your conclusions? I know you said poverty is the main, so I'm wondering if the Child Tax Credit is a priority for you.


Dr. Nathaniel Harnett 16:14

Yeah. I think that what I've learned in the last few years is that seems like it's a lot harder to be a policymaker than it is to be a neuroscientist. But I'll go ahead and extend my neck out anyway. I really do think that at the end of the day -- look, there are a couple ways that we can try to approach the impact of adversity on our kids and on the brain.


We can take a very individual-level approach where we say, “Well, we should give kids therapy to help deal with their stress, or drugs, or we should do alternative approaches.” And I think at some level, when you're talking about the individual, that stuff is good.


But that doesn't fix the material conditions. That doesn't fix the long-standing structural inequities. And so, you know, my views on policy in terms of addressing this is a lot of what you're saying: the Child Tax Credit, anything that's going to help parents and a community have and retain money for their kids to help support the development are things that I would look to, first and foremost.


Carol Jenkins 17:17

First and foremost, and also on your list is structural racism, systemic racism -- How do you deal with that?


Dr. Nathaniel Harnett 17:27

That's a great question. And it's unfortunate that I don't have the answer. I think that part of what we worry about and part of what we think about is both angles of that, right? The structural racism piece, you have institutions and systems that historically and contemporarily disenfranchised racially minoritized groups.


And then you have the individual racism, the actual overt and covert actions that people are doing. And tackling both of those is hard. You're dealing with two separate beasts that you have to tackle the same time. I think that in some level, we would hope that the policy changes with again, thinking about what we found in this study, how it sort of systematically disenfranchises some groups more than others, that keeping that in mind as we make these policies will be important and will help to sort of alleviate some of the stress of structural racism. Dealing with the individual racism part is a lot harder.


Carol Jenkins 18:23

Dr. Harnett, thank you so much for being with us today for your research and for explaining it to us. And good luck with the repairing of it. We'd be very interested to track, you know, how the study develops.


Dr. Nathaniel Harnett 18:36

Happy to talk about it. Thanks so much for having me today.


Jeff Madrick 18:37

Thank you.


The Invisible Americans theme by Bridget St. John



Jeff Madrick 18:47

Clara Moore is a poverty expert with the national organization RESULTS. She has a master's degree in public policy from Rutgers University, but she also has had a life-affecting experience as a child and a parent while living in the grips of poverty.


Carol Jenkins 19:06

She says, “Here's what I've discovered. You can work hard, do all the right things, and still teeter on the edge of poverty.” She calls it the ghost of poverty that has followed her through her entire life.


Thanks so much, Clara. Thank you so much for being with us today. I have seen you some on webinars. I have read what you've written. And I know that you are a poverty expert, which when I saw that, I said, “I want to know more about that.” Jeff, of course, has written the book “Invisible Americans,” which, you know, started our conversation about the Child Tax Credit, our wanting to get it reinstated and to make it permanent. So that's the purpose of our podcast. Jeff, did you want to start off with a question for Clara?


Jeff Madrick 19:56

Hi, Clara, a pleasure to speak with you. You know more of that poverty that we do because you've been there. And I wanted to ask you when the Child Tax Credit was passed, did you know how beneficial it was likely to be?


Clara Moore 20:10

To be very honest, I -- because I have a degree in policy and also I do this advocacy work, which is all around policy, I follow policy, especially anti-poverty policy, pretty closely. So I saw it coming down the pike. And I can't tell you how excited I was. And I knew it was coming. And I knew that -- I was calling everyone, like, “Make sure you sign up. Make sure you understand what's going on.” I was trying to educate everyone because I, especially during 2020, which was one of the darkest times of my life -- it was like a light at the end of the tunnel, to be very honest.


Jeff Madrick 20:45

How much did it help you?


Clara Moore 20:46

It helped me -- In that particular moment, it took the edge off. I was unemployed, I had graduated from grad school in January of 2020, which was the absolute worst timing. So I couldn't -- could not -- get a job for all of 2020. And so I was just sort of, like, eking by, really having a hard time. And so it really took the edge off of how just really tough everything was.


Carol Jenkins 21:11

And, Clara, one of the things that you're confronted with is that you have a small child and childcare and rent and education. All of those things came into play. Tell us a little bit more about that, the fact that if you were going to go to work, you needed someone to take your child.


Clara Moore 21:31

Right, absolutely. So in terms of how it impacted us, we actually homeschool, so we don't have the biggest of childcare. She's seven. But we do have a homeschool co-op that we pay to be a part of. And that's important and integral to the homeschooling process because she gets to socialize, which is such a huge thing that you need.


And so we were worried that we wouldn't be able to do that, which is really -- it's really imperative for a homeschool child to be socializing with other kids. So it allowed us to keep doing that. It also just allowed us to feel some security, housing security, being able to pay for basics, you know, things like that. It was just really important.


And then I also -- I don't want to underplay the importance of how -- so we got the monthly, which was amazing. And then I also got the full refund. So the way it worked, right, I got basically the full refund, and the monthly was that extra amount. And so getting that full refund at the end of the year or the beginning of the year, essentially, is so imperative to people in my situation.


Because one of the things about poverty and especially long term poverty is you just can't save money. It's just nearly impossible to save money. And getting a large sum of money, a few thousand dollars, is really meaningful if you want to move, if you want to buy a car, if you want to do anything that requires a large chunk of money.


Jeff Madrick 22:57

So what happened to your life when Congress so kindly took the Child Tax Credit away?


Clara Moore 23:03

When it went away, I finally had secured a job. And that really was helpful. But what isn't helpful is that even though I've secured a job, as a person who's lived in poverty much of my life, I still live right on the edge of poverty. Like I don't -- just because I have a job, and it has benefits and seeming security, that does not mean that I'm not one paycheck away from being homeless. Like, honestly, you know, it's -- I'm right on the edge.


And so when they -- when things, safety nets like that are taken away, I am just that much more anxious. I'm that much more worried. And I'm that much closer to sort of stumbling back over the edge into poverty. It's really hard to parent that way. It's really difficult because you want to be present for your child, right? You want to be -- you want to make them feel safe, and it's hard to make them feel safe when you don't feel safe.


Carol Jenkins 23:53

You speak about your lifelong experience with poverty. If you can tell us a little bit more about that.


Clara Moore 23:59

Absolutely. I grew up in a big family. We didn't have much. I honestly didn't think that much about it. I mean, I knew that we didn't have much, but I didn't really understand what poverty was, especially since I lived in middle America. And we sort of all just – like, that's just the way it is, right? No one wants to say that they live in poverty.


So when I got older and I met other people and I understood how other people lived, I suddenly was like, “Oh my goodness, I lived in poverty.” And I struggled through much of my 20s and didn't really understand. I thought it was a personal failing. I thought that I just wasn't -- just couldn't get on top of it.


But I was okay, and then after I had my child, the bottom fell out again. And I didn't understand how close I was to poverty until I had a situation, and I had a small child, and I couldn't work all the time, and I couldn't -- I didn't have the stability that I had before. And suddenly I was in really terrible poverty for many years until we kind of -- I kind of got to work on that, went back to school, tried to, like, progress my life, right?


So then I also started -- in that moment of going back into poverty, I also started advocating for anti-poverty programs and understanding more and more and more about my own experience of poverty and my own experience of generational poverty, my own experience of how poverty has just followed me through my whole life, even in the times when I was like making okay money, right?


And so it's not something that's easily shed. It's not. It's a shadow that constantly follows you around unless you really have, like, a huge windfall. Most of those of us who grew up in poverty are constantly just sort of, like, trying to run away from the ghost of poverty.


Jeff Madrick 25:35

What was the most anxious aspect of poverty for you?


Clara Moore 25:40

I've had money anxiety my whole life, right. And like I said, in my 20s, I thought it was a personal failing. I thought I couldn't figure it out. And so money was just anxiety-ridden all the time. And it's always about, “I'm not going to be okay.” That's how you feel. And so every penny, you think about every penny you spend. You think about every penny you make. You think about every hour that you're at work. You're like, “Okay, I can now buy those shoes I need to come back to work, right?” It's every -- there's no ease.


And I sort of just lived that way because I thought that was how I lived, right, and that was okay. And then when you're confronted with a child who's watching you live like that, then you start thinking, “Oh, I don't want to pass this on.” Like, I don't want her to see me constantly be worrying about every single penny and worrying about where the next meal is coming from or where we can get healthy and nutritious food.


The thing about poverty and anxiety is they go hand-in-hand in terms of it impacts literally everything, right? So can I -- do I have enough gas to take her to daycare? Do I have enough gas to take myself to work? Do I have, you know -- every single day, it's like, “Do I have the resources to do the things that just make my life function?” And when you have a child, especially a small child, you want to be able to give them joy and happiness and ease. And it's really difficult to do that when you yourself are just thinking constantly about how you're going to make this work.


And it just is never ending, which is also exhausting. Much like raising a child, it's never ending, right? But then you have this other added piece. It's also scary because you think to yourself -- I mean, there were moments. She's seven now. And there's moments in the last seven years where I was like, “Okay, well, I guess we'll sleep in the car.” We never had to. But we got to that point where I was like, “Well, I don't know where rent is coming next month from, so I have to start planning.”


How do I get myself out of the situation? What do I do if we are faced with a situation where we can't stay in our apartment, right? And that's, like, not fun or happy.


Carol Jenkins 27:46

Just incredible stress for you, you know, in addition to not wanting your child to see this -- I mean, depression, anxiety, all of that.


Clara Moore 27:56

Absolutely. Lifetime, a lifetime of it really, you know, and it's -- and then that impacting being present. And I really talk a lot about how poverty takes you away as a parent, and I witnessed it with my own parents, who were constantly concerned about where money was coming from. They just were not able to be present. Not only were they working all the time, but then when they were home, they were anxious and agitated, worried, right?


And I don't want that. I want to be present. I want to be available. I want to be there for her. And I don't want my all of my waking moments concerned with how we're going to make the end of the month or how we're going to make it through the year. Poverty really snatches parents from children in that way, emotionally and oftentimes physically.


Jeff Madrick 28:41

What would you think people understand least about the lives of poor children, children brought up in families that are poor?


Clara Moore 28:51

I think it's one of two things. One is that children don't understand that they're poor, right? They often don't understand the concepts of it or why it's happening or what is happening. Children will just accept whatever it is.


And it's very hard then as you move through adulthood and into the next stage of your life to say, “This isn't the life I want for myself,” because you don't even realize that there is another life. You know, you don't even realize that people live differently than you or they don't struggle minute by minute or they have family that's maybe supporting them financially, when you don't.


And I think that that is one of the biggest issues, and like I just said, the anxiety and trauma. I also really like to stress that poverty is traumatic. There's a certain specific trauma that comes with poverty, especially a childhood of poverty, that almost anyone outside of it cannot understand. So I'm part of the this group with RESULTS, who I advocate with, and the group is called Experts on Poverty. And we're experts because we have lived experience and, many of us, childhood experience.


And we are a group of people from all over the country, all different ages, different backgrounds, but we are such good friends. And the reason is we can understand this very specific trauma that we have had. And it is so specific. It's really hard to almost explain because it's just insidious and encompassing, and sort of just, like, eats away at you in a way that's hard to understand about other kinds of trauma because it's a little-T trauma, right?


It's not big, like one big thing happened. It's like constant concern, constant worry, constant anxiety, your parents anxious, your parents worried, you know, and then also being put in situations that aren't exactly safe because that's what we have, and, you know, things like that.


Carol Jenkins 30:38

So it's stopping the generational transition of this, what you call the ghost of poverty, that goes from generation to generation, that you are keenly -- and that the organization you work with, RESULTS -- you're keenly interested in doing that, of stopping it here and now. And that's one of the things that things like the Child Tax Credit actually did do and demonstrate that they were very successful at, and yet it was taken away.


Clara Moore 31:06

And has always done. Like, it is one of the most successful programs, federal programs in terms of actually getting people out of poverty and keeping people out of poverty. And that's the wild thing, that, A, that model is not used more and, B, that it's not more supported. But it actually functions the way it's supposed to function. And it's such an imperative piece.

I would say, looking at my life as a parent in the last seven years, the few things that have really, like, made it okay, for me: A, EBT is wonderful; Medicaid. I have had a great experience with Medicaid. I've never seen a medical bill, right? It's just like I've been taken care of by the country, right, when I was unemployed.


And then the Child Tax Credit, getting the tax credit at the end of the year or the beginning of the year and having a large chunk of money that can get you to the next place that you could never do when you're just being nickeled and dimed all over the place by the expense of poverty, which I'm sure you guys have talked about before is poverty is so expensive.


Carol Jenkins 32:11

It is expensive. What can we do? In addition to being an expert in poverty because of your life experience, you have a graduate degree. And you are researching the, you know, the policy. What exactly needs to happen? How do we get this, in your mind, back in play?


Clara Moore 32:28

I was part of a briefing about what the next step is and what was really driven home in that is that, A, strategically, we have to weigh this against corporate tax cuts. So we have to say, “You can't have your corporate tax cuts unless we get this support.” And the other one was sort of paring down our push. So there's been a push for the monthly payments. There's been a push for total refundability, which means anyone gets it, even if they don't make any money. Even if they have no income, they receive it. And then the added benefit, so a higher benefit.


And just to sort of pare down what our want is, so we either have to focus on more benefit or more people. The monthly has sort of gone by the wayside. And so both of those are really important because there is millions of people who are not getting the Child Tax Credit because they don't make any income.


You have to make a certain amount of income to get the refund, which is pretty terrible for people who have small children who can't work.


Jeff Madrick 33:28

That wasn’t the case with the Child Tax Credit, however. Everybody was entitled to a refund.


Clara Moore 33:34

Right, with the new -- with this -- with the one that came in the \


Jeff Madrick 33:37

Yeah, the new one.


Clara Moore 33:39

The new one. I can't think of the name, the reconstruction, the Build America Better? I think so, right? The new one that came through, which was the monthly payments, the higher benefit, and then what we call full refundability, right?

And so all of these folks who had never been able to get the Child Tax Credit suddenly got to have it. For people who have such a low income that they're not getting a refund, they are the ones who need it the most. Right? They're the ones who, I mean -- I don't mean to judge who needs what the most, right, but they're the ones who could probably use it.


Jeff Madrick 34:12

Yeah, they're the lowest income. They're the lowest-income people.


Clara Moore 34:16

The tragic thing about that is that unemployment and having a new child goes hand-in-hand unless you have a ton of money for childcare. You can't work and have childcare because most jobs these days pay as much as it costs to send your kid to childcare.


So a lot of people, what they end up doing is just not working, right? And then those folks are not getting the benefit of this tax credit because they don't have the money to, you know? It's pretty wild that there would even be any sort of people being too poor to get the tax credit. It doesn't make sense.


Jeff Madrick 34:50

Yeah, it made sense to a lot of American legislators for a while, but that's why the recent one was so revolutionary. It went to everybody. So that's why we're making a push to try and get it reinstated. And I'm sure you're doing the same thing.


Clara Moore 35:09

Absolutely, as much as I can. I mean, thank you for having me on so I can tell this story and help people understand this.


Jeff Madrick 35:16

Let me just ask this. How did it affect your daughter's education? So she was well treated medically because of Medicaid. Right?


Clara Moore 35:27



Jeff Madrick 35:28

But a lot? of people aren't because a lot of states have refused to adopt it. But secondly, how did it affect her education? Did she have sufficient resources? Was she calm enough to do her work?


Clara Moore 35:41

Like I said before, we homeschool but homeschool sounds, you know, it sounds okay. So we homeschool. So we teach at home, but that requires a huge financial input. So we have to buy our own books. We have to buy our own -- we try to send her to classes. We, you know, have to buy our own supplies, essentially. And then also make our schedules flexible enough to be able to do that. And then on top of that, we try to send her to our co-op so that she can have social time with -- and also have a consistent social time with the same kids and the same teacher, which is also really important. And so without that benefit and that support, we were really worried about not being able to send her back to that. And it also cuts down on how much we can provide for her for her education, in terms of buying books and workbooks and programs. All that stuff costs money.


Jeff Madrick 36:31

Yeah. Well, I think you're doing a great job. You went back to school. Congratulations.


Clara Moore 36:34

Thank you.


Carol Jenkins 36:36

You're a great story, Clara. Thank you for working. Are you optimistic about ending this ghost of poverty for yourself and what you see with your group, you know, the group that you're with, you know, who all share this experience?


Clara Moore 36:54

You know, I do. I am optimistic, and I kind of have to be because if not, it's too depressing, right? And the thing that I've learned about the ghost of poverty, right, one of the ways that thrives is in isolation. And so what -- the RESULTS group is so important to me, and on top of that, telling my story because what I realized is people are in poverty in isolation, not understanding why things aren't working out. And it's not because they're a bad person or they're not working hard enough. It's because we're stuck in a system that is really difficult.


The way to break that isolation and to really help keep that ghost as far away as possible is community. And the community starts with talking about our experiences, and then other people can say, you know that I have that same experience, and let's help each other. “I'm having a hard time. Can you help me? Can I help you? Oh, my daughter outgrew these clothes. Do you need some clothes for your kid?” You know, I mean, those are those are the things that keep the ghost of poverty as far away as possible, I think.


Carol Jenkins 37:56

I think, Clara, thank you so much for being with us today.


Clara Moore 38:00

Thank you for having me.


The Invisible Americans theme by Bridget St. John


Jeff Madrick 38:09

History will judge the nation's decency in various ways, one of them will surely be the well-being of all its children. American neglect of its poor children is both inexplicable and deplorable. By basic measures, it has the highest child poverty rate among rich nations in the world. A generation of careful academic research has shown how damaging this has been to children's cognition, health, nutrition, and future wages. In 2021, Congress and the president adopted an enlightened program that expanded the Child Tax Credit and made it available to almost all children no matter their race, ethnicity, or how little their parents earn. The results were stunning, cutting the poverty rate by half. But Congress refused to renew the program.

In coming months, this podcast will examine the future of the Child Tax Credit and other key policies to protect children from the destructiveness of poverty. We are dedicated to restoring a bright and optimistic future for all children and this land along celebrated for equal opportunity.


Carol Jenkins 39:28

We want to thank our guests today, Dr. Nathaniel Harnett and Clara Moore. On our website, you can find a complete transcription of the conversations, show notes, bios and links for our guests, as well as articles about child poverty and prescriptions for it and organizations doing this.


Our website is www.theinvisibleamericans.com. That's theinvisibleamericans.com. Jeff and I will see you the next time

Dr. Nathaniel G. Harnett

Nate is Director of the NATE Lab at McLean Hospital and an Assistant Professor in Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. He earned his PhD in Psychology at the University of Alabama at Birmingham under the mentorship of David C. Knight, PhD. He then completed postdoctoral training at McLean Hospital/Harvard Medical School with Kerry J. Ressler, MD/PhD. Nate's research primarily focuses on the neurobiological mechanisms of susceptibility to trauma and stress-related disorders. In addition to his research activities, Nate is currently a co-editor of Mental Health Science. Nate's work has been funded by the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, the National Institute of Mental Health, the Ford Foundation, and the Brain Behavior Research Foundation.

Clara Moore

Clara Moore has been telling her story with RESULTS' Experts on Poverty for four years now. She is a long-time chef who recently discovered a passion for policy and data. Clara graduated from Rutgers University's Bloustein School and is now a statistician for the Census Bureau. She has had firsthand experience with poverty as a child and for most of her adult life. These lived experiences drive her advocacy and policy work - with a deep understanding that real policy needs to include the voices of those impacted.