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?
As a teacher, you would invite the parents of your students to talk about their kids’ advanced skills and the abilities they exhibit at home.
As a legislator, you would solicit policy briefs or invite testimony about the number of children who demonstrate curiosity, ingenuity, honesty, and respect, or who are proud of their cultural, ethnic, or social identity.
As a funder, you would invite neighborhood groups or non-profits to describe their community’s strengths and accomplishments that they intend to build upon.
For me, as a researcher, it means starting studies with humility and with the understanding that I’d be conducting research with, not on, community members. The study sponsors and participants would decide on the research questions and the appropriate methods and credible evidence to answer them. Accordingly, my role in the research process is as an objective and constructive ally, listening and proposing alternatives, not as an outside expert intent on using prescribed methods or data sources.
In this way, instead of basing decisions on an inventory of problems, teachers, legislators, and funders would have data on both needs and strengths to understand the diversity and complexity of community life and to make informed decisions about policies and programs that affect communities from each community’s perspective.
One such strength or asset is cultural and ancestral pride. Too often race and ancestry data has been used as a proxy for problems, trouble, and deficits. For example, before the late 20th century, simply being an American Indian youth constituted a risk in the eyes of many majority-race researchers and policymakers. But by the 1990s that perception started to change. American Indian and other Indigenous community members began leveraging their cultural identity as a bulwark against a litany of problems besetting their communities — suicide, alcohol abuse, and other negative outcomes. Instilling in children a pride of cultural heritage promoted positivity and confidence. Native cultural heritage is rightly viewed as a vital asset.
Positive social support and a sense of security in relationships are other important assets. A sense of belonging and emotional connectedness within a community or family are key protective factors for families with young children. They promote well-being, healthy development, and positive social behavior while decreasing isolation and related mental health concerns. They provide a sense of purpose and identity. They also contribute to a family’s safety net, which can provide needed help for any reason.
Imagine what our news stories, policy discourse, and data for well-rounded public decisions would look like if we looked at assets first and believed that youth, families, and communities have the wisdom, knowledge, strengths, and determination to take charge of their own healing and development. Then youth, families, and communities would have their own data to tell their own stories of affirmation, pride, and purpose.
Richard Chase, Ph.D, is senior research manager for Wilder Research in St. Paul, Minnesota.