Poor people are often blamed for their own poverty. And indeed, it’s not difficult to find anecdotal evidence of poor people doing dumb and self-destructive things. However, even if we assume – and that’s a big if – that this evidence can be confirmed by more rigorous statistical analysis, then we’re still not allowed to claim that stupidity is in general – and not just in some cases – an important cause of poverty. First, it may very well be the case that everyone, rich and poor, is likely to make the same stupid mistakes but that the poor just have a smaller margin of error. The same stupid mistake made by a poor person costs him or her more dearly. Rich people on the other hand can afford to be stupid. Second, even if it’s true that the poor are on average somewhat more stupid and self-destructive, they should perhaps not be blamed for this. There’s some evidence from psychology that the pressure and stress of poverty reduces our cognitive abilities:
In a behavioral economics experiment several years ago, researchers asked shoppers at a New Jersey mall to handle the following decision: Have your faulty car repaired for either $150 or $1,500. While the participants were considering how to decide, they were given simple cognitive tasks like solving puzzles.
The researchers, Prof. Eldar Shafir and Jiaying Zhao, both from Princeton University, and Harvard University Prof. Sendhil Mullainathan, expected that the stress from contemplating the $1,500 expense would hurt performance. They were right. But participants with above-average incomes succeeded in their tasks under both scenarios, while those with average or low incomes did worse as repair costs climbed.
Even the prospect of spending any money at all damaged the ability of low-income earners to think rationally. (source)
Other tests measured IQ before and after a harvest, i.e. in uncertain times and in more comfortable times:
The farmers had better IQ results during the season of plenty. Before the harvest they had problems making fateful decisions, because of stress. (source)
The stress of poverty causes distractions, which in turn show up as cognitive deficiencies. It’s not cognitive deficiencies that cause poverty but the other way around. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that the causality goes both ways.
More on poverty and behavior, on poverty and stress, on poverty and intelligence and on poverty and brain functions.
More posts in this series.
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.
Poverty is not just the absence of sufficient income or a level of consumption that is below a minimum threshold. Poverty is multidimensional: it also means bad health, high mortality rates, illiteracy etc. And these different elements of poverty tend to have a negative effect on each other (the so-called poverty trap). Being deprived of literacy or education is usually seen as an obstacle to material wellbeing.
The absence of material wellbeing – whether expressed in terms of income, consumption, health, mortality etc. – is often viewed as an isolated evil. However, it’s possible to make the case that it can also have psychological effects that harm people’s mental wellbeing. If this is true, and I think it is, then poverty does more harm than we usually think it does.
I believe it’s widely accepted that poverty does some psychological damage, such as stress, depression, loss of self-esteem and of the feeling of control, loss of ambition and aspirations etc. Although usually people assume – correctly or not – that this type of damage is less severe or less urgent than the physical damage that results from poverty (such as bad health, mortality, hunger etc.). Some even argue that there’s a tendency to overemphasize the link between material deprivation and (the perception of) subjective wellbeing, and that psychological problems which may seem to be caused by material deprivation have in fact other causes (genetics, upbringing, personality etc.).
However, I think the tendency is rather to underestimate the effects on mental wellbeing. A recognition of the psychological effects of poverty would also open the possibility of a more positive evaluation of notions such as poverty as vulnerability and relative poverty. Vulnerability, or a high level of risk of poverty, can perhaps produce the same amount of stress as actual poverty. And one’s self-esteem can suffer as much from actual deprivation (including illiteracy) as from comparative (or relative) deprivation (e.g. comparatively low levels of education or income).
For you always have the poor with you, and whenever you wish you can do good to them; but you do not always have Me. Mark 14:7
For the poor will never cease to be in the land; therefore I command you, saying, “You shall freely open your hand to your brother, to your needy and poor in your land”. Deuteronomy 15:11
As a result of having parents who are poor, children
- receive substandard education because they enroll in substandard schools (if at all)
- may be forced to quit school early and start working
- do not receive quality healthcare (because of the costs)
- are more likely to be obese, with negative consequences for their health
- have a lower birth weight, something which also has a negative impact on health.
Growing up in poor families has negative effects on children’s education and health, and these effects in turn make it more likely that these children grow up to become poor as well. And their children will go through the same process, and so on. Hence the concept of hereditary poverty.
Just a few more words on the effect of substandard education. The quality of schools (or better the cost of good schools) and the element of child labor aren’t the only factors limiting the education levels of children in poor families. An interesting article in The Economist points to effects discovered by neuroscience. It seems that stress, induced by poverty, lowers memory capacity, and this lowered memory capacity makes it more difficult to learn and to obtain a good education as a means to escape poverty traps. It’s been well known for a while that stress lowers memory capacity (it reduces the volume of the prefrontal cortex and the hippocampus, parts of the brain associated with memory). However, Evans and Schamberg (see the paper here) showed that stress caused by poverty reduces memory capacity. First they showed that poverty is correlated with higher stress, and then that higher stress is correlated with lower memory capacity. Comparisons of the memory capacities of poor and middle class people showed indeed a difference in memory capacity, and this is caused by poverty induced stress rather than other elements of poverty. Poverty causes stress, which reduces memory, which in turn makes it harder to learn, which in turn makes it more difficult to escape a poverty trap. How does poverty cause stress? Well, there’s the obvious cause: financial insecurity. But low self-esteem caused by poverty (including for children in poor families) also seems to contribute. See this paper for instance.
The poor indeed will always be with us. At least if we don’t help them to get out of the traps in which they find themselves.