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Precision health approach tapped to identify causes of poverty

A new approach to identifying the factors linked to poverty could help researchers identify ways to prevent it.

In the United States, poverty is a persistent problem affecting the health and well-being of about 40 million people. Part of the challenge, as a recent story in Insights by Stanford Business explains, is that poverty isn't a single problem stemming from one cause; instead, a constellation of factors collectively shape poverty.

This realization is a relatively new one, and recent advances in medicine sparked by the precision health movement helped prompt a Stanford study that applies a fresh approach to this age-old problem. The study's principal investigator, psychologist Geoffrey Cohen, PhD, explains the premise:

We haven’t cured cancer, but almost everyone agrees that we’re making much more significant progress since we realized cancer is not a single entity, but many entities, and that we ought to tailor treatment to the underlying problem.

The team, which includes David Rehkopf, PhD, associate professor of medicine; humanities and economic policy specialist David Grusky, PhD; and Emma Brunskill, PhD, and Jure Leskovec, PhD, from computer science, will use a machine-learning approach to cull through many massive data sets to search for factors linked to poverty.

Identifying the multiple variables associated with poverty may seem like a roundabout tactic, but it's a crucial first step because uncovering these factors could lead to novel solutions that prevent poverty altogether, the researchers believe.

Once they identify factors linked to poverty, the research team plans to create a detailed classification of the different kinds of poverty. Then, they'll use computer models to explore how these factors, such as addiction and housing insecurity, interact and which interventions are likely to counter poverty best in a given scenario.

One thing that could help ameliorate the effects of being poor is a set of psychological interventions designed by Cohen, the article states. In this intervention, participants can reflect on things that keep them going and give them a sense of dignity. This kind of reflection can help reduce stress and, in education and health contexts, has led to lasting improvements.

"There are a lot of people who are teetering on the cusp of a different destiny," Cohen said. "The right act of support at the right time could make all the difference."

Photo by ptrabattoni

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