When Helping Hurts. Why Innovative Approaches Are Needed to Serve At-Risk Youth

When Helping Hurts. Why Innovative Approaches Are Needed to Serve At-Risk Youth

In a world where so many right-hearted people spend so much time and money on social interventions meant to help, doesn’t it make sense to figure out which ones work and which ones don’t?

That’s the question economist Stephen J. Dubner explored on an episode of his Freakonomics radio show called “When Helping Hurts.”

Dubner took a look at a longitudinal study that began during the Great Depression and is still going on today. Back in the 1930s, Dr. Richard Clark Cabot commissioned what came to be known as the Cambridge-Somerville Youth Study. The study looked at the effects of common interventions such as mentoring, counseling, homework help, and summer camp.

The results are surprising.

They show that these supportive programs actually do not have the intended consequences of helping at-risk youth. In fact, it is quite the contrary: These programs actually hurt those who receive services.


The short answer is these programs don’t change the circumstances of their target audience. Yes, they are exposed to better opportunities and are receiving intermittent support, but at the end of the day, they don’t have the full structures and systems set up for success. Another factor is their environment. These programs don't change the fact that for most of the time they are continually surrounded by others who share their circumstances, poverty, crime, joblessness, lack of education, incarceration, absent parent(s).

Certain interventions like group therapy or summer camps have a particular negative effect which is likely the result of something called contagion or deviancy training. This means that if a youth is talking about something like using drugs or shoplifting, others might respond by smiling or acting in an encouraging, rather than disapproving, manner. The research shows if such conversations and responses occur, there will likely be an increase in those behavior in the future.

Ultimately, the Cambridge-Somerville Youth Study showed that on all seven measures (longevity, incarceration, mental health, drug/alcohol use, physical well-being, job satisfaction, relationship satisfaction), the treatment group who received interventions did statistically, significantly worse off than the control group. Not only that, there was also the dose effectthe longer the intervention, the more likely the damage would be done.

Does this mean we should just stop interventions for at risk youth?

The Verdict?

It depends.

If we have research showing a certain type of intervention makes no positive difference, and in fact worsens someone’s situation, then, yes. We should stop.

Stop the mentoring, the group counseling, the summer camp programs if we have no evidence of effectiveness.

But then what? Do nothing?

Of course not. But before we do something, we need to look at what works for at-risk youth, then we need to measure its effectiveness.The good news is there are innovative solutions that have been proven to work. Maybe these are even solutions you are implementing where you live or work. Want to know what they are? That is what we'll look at in a series of future posts called: Innovative approaches to supporting at-risk youth.

Lisa Nielsen writes for and speaks to audiences across the globe about learning innovatively and is frequently covered by local and national media for her views on “Passion (not data) Driven Learning,” "Thinking Outside the Ban" to harness the power of technology for learning, and using the power of social media to provide a voice to educators and students. Ms. Nielsen has worked for more than a decade in various capacities to support learning in real and innovative ways that will prepare students for success. In addition to her award-winning blog, The Innovative Educator, Ms. Nielsen’s writing is featured in places such as Huffington Post, Tech & Learning, ISTE Connects, ASCD Wholechild, MindShift, Leading & Learning, The Unplugged Mom, and is the author the book Teaching Generation Text.

Disclaimer: The information shared here is strictly that of the author and does not reflect the opinions or endorsement of her employer.