Op-Ed: If deficits are all we see when we look at some kids, we’d better widen our lens

Updated: Jan 17, 2020

July 22, 2019

By Richard Chase, Wilder Research

The original version of this article by was published in the Twin Cities Pioneer Press on May 18, 2019 and can be accessed here. This post has been cross-posted with permission by the author.

What do preschool suspensions, the cradle-to-prison pipeline, and the focus on racial academic achievement gaps have in common?

They all view children through a deficit lens.

For people applying for a grant or developing legislation, one of the first actions is to describe the need or problem your project or policy will address. This is often done in the harshest terms possible, which is usually from a deficit perspective.

It’s little surprise that the public defaults to this perspective. On the news and at public hearings we hear ample data on the number of children who are homeless or who live in poverty. We take note of the growing number of kids in foster care, or the increasing rate of child maltreatment.

And who can blame us? We are inundated with these and numerous other problems, risks, and miseries on a regular basis, both about children and the communities they come from. When the U.S. Census, state agencies, and other mainstream sources of data track and highlight mostly negative, deficit-focused data, we’re not left with much else.

But why do gaps, problems, and adverse experiences — more than assets and hopeful solutions — dominate the thinking of mainstream institutions and their leaders? Why are we failing to provide a balanced accounting, or the full picture, about the well-being of children and communities?

In many ways this deficit lens stems from systemic bias and the power of the dominant perspective, which largely emanates from outside of the communities they are assessing. This perspective relies on external experts to identify not just what they consider broken but the evidence-based interventions to fix it.

Does it matter?


For while the outcomes associated with deficits are indeed consequential, they convey an incomplete narrative of the children they reflect; the deficit lens does not give us a clear vision of the future. Rather than valuing assets like community knowledge and intergenerational relationships, the deficit lens extracts value from both people and their communities. It demeans them. It demonizes them.

Where deficits are something to tackle or fix, assets are something to grow; they stimulate investments and are forward-looking by nature. Assets strengthen reciprocal relationships and advance community self-determination. In many ways, they are a source of joy, solace, and hopefulness. If we focused on assets and well-being and had access to more strengths-based data — if we valued community wisdom — we would treat people with dignity.

What could this look like in practice?