Friday, June 10, 2011

Poverty's Pernicious Effects

The New Republic has published a provocative article entitled "Why Can’t More Poor People Escape Poverty?: A radical new explanation from psychologists." (HT Big Boy Blogger Andrew Sullivan) Jamie Holmes reports that the answer is simple: poverty depletes willpower. 
Taking this model of willpower into the real world, psychologists and economists have been exploring one particular source of stress on the mind: finances. The level at which the poor have to exert financial self-control, they have suggested, is far lower than the level at which the well-off have to do so. Purchasing decisions that the wealthy can base entirely on preference, like buying dinner, require rigorous tradeoff calculations for the poor. As Princeton psychologist Eldar Shafir formulated the point in a recent talk, for the poor, “almost everything they do requires tradeoff thinking. It’s distracting, it’s depleting … and it leads to error.” The poor have to make financial tradeoff decisions, as Shafir put it, “on anything above a muffin.”
Later in the article, Holmes writes,
Many of the tradeoff decisions that the poor have to make every day are onerous and depressing: whether to pay rent or buy food; to buy medicine or winter clothes; to pay for school materials or loan money to a relative. These choices are weighty, and just thinking about them seems to exact a mental cost.
The most chilling result may be the loss of true freedom.  Holmes concludes,
The economist Amartya Sen, in his well-known volume Development as Freedom, notes how an individual’s “freedom of agency” is “constrained by the social, political and economic opportunities” available to them. He’s right: Fewer options do reduce freedom. But now, we may need to grapple with a new possibility: that poverty doesn’t simply reduce freedom by constraining an individual’s choices, but that it may actually alter the nature of freedom by reducing an individual’s willpower.
As if loss of freedom and will power were not destructive enough, this article points to a study that shows that poverty starts to inhibit learning is children as young as two. (HT @DianeRavitch)
Psychologists at the University of Texas at Austin gave a series of mental tests to 750 sets of young twins between 10 months and 2 years old. They found that half of the gains that wealthier children show on tests can be attributed to their genes. Fine. That's not shocking, but it's not the case for children from poorer families, who already lag behind their peers by age 2. That cohort in the study showed almost no improvements driven by their genetic makeup. If you are poor, then your mental development starts to stagnate before you even reach pre-school.

The lead author, Professor Elliot Tucker-Drob, makes a point of reminding us that his findings do not suggest that children from wealthier families are genetically superior or smarter. They simply have more opportunities to reach their potential. That's his lesson from this. So what exactly are those opportunities? That's what we need to know.

The study notes that wealthier parents are often able to provide better educational resources and spend more time with their children but doesn't conclude what factors, in particular, help their children reach their genetic potentials. That's the follow-up study Tucker-Drob is already planning. But these findings offer another a pretty obvious scientific example of why breaking the cycle of poverty is so difficult and why offering all children access to early childhood development programs is so important if we want to be a land of equal opportunity. [emphasis mine]
Studies like these make it abundantly clear that poverty leaves people behind at the beginning and makes catching up difficult if not impossible.

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