The Causes of Poverty (67): Lack of Hope

Esther Duflo tells us about a program in West Bengal. People were given a “small productive asset” such as a farm animal for instance, and some money so as to prevent people from eating or selling the animal.

Well after the financial help and hand-holding had stopped, the families of those who had been randomly chosen for the … programme were eating 15% more, earning 20% more each month and skipping fewer meals than people in a comparison group. They were also saving a lot. The effects were so large and persistent that they could not be attributed to the direct effects of the grants: people could not have sold enough milk, eggs or meat to explain the income gains. Nor were they simply selling the assets (although some did). (source)

The most likely reason for this is hope. The handouts broke the cycle of pessimism and lack of hope. People were finally offered some mental space to think about something else than just mere survival. The tiny bit of security that came with a farm animal and a financial buffer opened up the possibility of planning, of looking into alternative livelihoods etc. For example, recipients worked 28% more hours, mostly on activities not directly related to the assets they were given. The rate of depression among participants also plummeted.

Some older and related posts:

More posts in this series are here.

The Causes of Poverty (59): Stress

Stress is often a consequence of poverty, but it can also make poverty worse. Esther Duflo and Abhijit Banerjee have noted in Poor Economics that

[t]here is a strong association between poverty and the level of cortisol produced by the body, an indicator of stress. Conversely, cortisol levels go down when households receive help. The children of the beneficiaries of PROGRESA, the Mexican cash transfer program [later renamed Oportunidades], have, for example, been found to have significantly lower levels of cortisol than comparable children whose mothers did not benefit from the program. (source)

Cortisol is a hormone, and high levels of it can cause brain dysfunctions which in turn make it difficult for affected individuals to escape their economic predicament.

The prefrontal cortex, for example, which is vital for suppressing impulsive responses, is rendered less effective by high cortisol levels, making us more likely to take hasty, ill-considered decisions. “When experimental subjects are artificially put under stressful conditions,” Duflo and Banerjee note, “they are less likely to make the economically rational decision when faced with choosing among different alternatives.” (source)

This poverty cycle or poverty trap can only be broken when external interventions reduce stress levels. For example, poor people can be given easier access to credit or insurance, which will reduce their fear of the future. They can be given a basic income. Etc. Perhaps cortisol-reducing medication is also an option.

More here on the way in which brain dysfunctions can cause poverty. And more here on the link between poverty, self-control and willpower. More posts in this blog series are here.