How Poverty Taxes the Brain


A new study finds evidence that living in poverty has dire negative consequences on one’s ability think straight and accomplish the things needed each day.

“…In a series of experiments run by researchers at Princeton, Harvard, and the University of Warwick, low-income people who were primed to think about financial problems performed poorly on a series of cognition tests, saddled with a mental load that was the equivalent of losing an entire night’s sleep. Put another way, the condition of poverty imposed a mental burden akin to losing 13 IQ points, or comparable to the cognitive difference that’s been observed between chronic alcoholics and normal adults.”

“The finding further undercuts the theory that poor people, through inherent weakness, are responsible for their own poverty – or that they ought to be able to lift themselves out of it with enough effort. This research suggests that the reality of poverty actually makes it harder to execute fundamental life skills

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. Being poor means, as the authors write, “coping with not just a shortfall of money, but also with a concurrent shortfall of cognitive resources.””

“This explains, for example, why poor people who aren’t good with money might also struggle to be good parents. The two problems aren’t unconnected.”

““It’s the same bandwidth,” says Princeton’s Eldar Shafir, one of the authors of the study alongside Anandi Mani, Sendhil Mullainathan, and Jiaying Zhao. Poor people live in a constant state of scarcity (in this case, scarce mental bandwidth), a debilitating environment that Shafir and Mullainathan describe in a book to be published next week, Scarcity: Why having too little means so much.”

“… The limited bandwidth created by poverty directly impacts the cognitive control and fluid intelligence that we need for all kinds of everyday tasks.

““When your bandwidth is loaded, in the case of the poor,” Shafir says, “you’re just more likely to not notice things, you’re more likely to not resist things you ought to resist, you’re more likely to forget things, you’re going to have less patience, less attention to devote to your children when they come back from school.””

“At the macro level, this means we lost an enormous amount of cognitive ability during the recession. Millions of people had less bandwidth to give to their children, or to remember to take their medication.”

“Conversely, going forward, this also means that anti-poverty programs could have a huge benefit that we’ve never recognized before: Help people become more financially stable, and you also free up their cognitive resources to succeed in all kinds of other ways as well…..”

Read the full article at: How Poverty Taxes the Brain.

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