Poverty Impedes Cognitive Function

brain flickr Matthew_Purdy

Do you have simple solutions for people who are in poverty, such as:

  • “They need to make better choices.”
  • “They need to get a good education, and a job, and work harder.”
  • “Don’t they know that drugs are not the answer?”
  • “Why don’t they save some money, for future needs?”

Of course, these are right ideas. But you must admit that these ideas didn’t come to you in a vacuum. You were taught those ideas, and then had them modeled. And you were probably encouraged and supported to apply them to your life.

But what if you didn’t have those ideas taught and modeled and encouraged and supported? And what if you had a handful of pressures in your life (like week-to-week survival)? Do you think that you would make these good decisions?

Poverty and the Brain

A recent study published in the journal Science shows “Poverty Impedes Cognitive Function.” I found at least four sources that describe these research findings.

Poverty Strains Cognitive Abilities (Washington Post). “Previous research often has assumed that poor people are poor because they are somehow less capable than others, whether inherently or because of past trauma or other environmental factors in their lives. . . . What the latest study suggests is that the strain of poverty can tax the cognitive abilities of anyone experiencing it — and that those abilities return when the burden of poverty disappears. . . .

“Policymakers should beware of imposing cognitive taxes on the poor just as they avoid monetary taxes on the poor. . . . Filling out long forms, deciphering complicated rules or undergoing lengthy interviews can consume scarce cognitive resources.

“You are captured by these monetary issues — how to pay rent, how to pay bills. . . . As a result, you’re less attentive to other problems. You neglect other things in life that deserve your attention.”

Study Finds Poverty Reduces Brain Power (MSN). “Far from signaling that poor people are stupid, the results suggest those living on a tight budget have their effective brain power, or what the researchers called ‘mental bandwidth,’ dramatically limited by the stress of making ends meet.”

Poverty Reduces Brain Power Needed for Navigating Other Areas of Life (Science Daily). “Previous views of poverty have blamed poverty on personal failings, or an environment that is not conducive to success. . . . We’re arguing that the lack of financial resources itself can lead to impaired cognitive function. The very condition of not having enough can actually be a cause of poverty.

“They can make the same mistakes, but the outcomes of errors are more dear. . . . So, if you live in poverty, you’re more error prone and errors cost you more dearly — it’s hard to find a way out.”

Bad Decisions Don’t Make You Poor. Being Poor Makes for Bad Decisions. (Slate). “This paternalistic notion that we should be relatively stingy with help, and make sure to attach it to complicated eligibility requirements and tests, may itself be contributing to the problem of poverty. . . . One of the best ways to help the poor help themselves, in other words, is to simply make them less poor.”

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**image courtesy of Matthew Purdy via flickr

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6 responses to “Poverty Impedes Cognitive Function”

  1. Karen says :

    Thank you Joey, for touching on this important topic. I think it is very, very difficult for those of us who have never lived in real poverty – not I’m too broke to buy Starbucks or go out for sushi, the “do I but food for my children or pay the rent before we get evicted” broke to understand the effects of living under that type of stress. Furthermore, the poverty is often generational and therefore long term, so unlike a temporary unemployment these people are living under chronic and severe long term stress where the brain is in survival mode….and sadly parents often lack the skills, ability and time (as they spend so much trying to survive) to teach their children coping and problem solving skills.

    • Joey E. says :

      Yes, this is something I didn’t understand even 2-3 years ago. And while I may have “head” knowledge about this, I still really don’t understand what it is like.

      But it definitely should make me pause, be patient, and (most of all) pray.

  2. Kenny G says :

    I think Poverty is not a good descriptor if we are only talking about income as the last paragraph implies. If it is only about income, I don’t think I can agree totally. If we are talking about poverty in thought and expectation, I think I can agree more. I grew up is a pretty poor environment in Korea and learned to work hard from my family. I think once the family loses that fire (often fueled by welfare), all is lost.

  3. Kenny G says :

    Agree Joey…btw…thank you and your family for what you are doing. You are an inspiration! Peace!

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