PovertyPoverty posses long lasting social, emotional and, least not forget, cognitive perils. A recent study found that people under financial strain have a hard time focusing on anything else other than their day-to-day strides, seriously affecting their cognitive abilities. The researchers, led by  noted Harvard economist Sendhil Mullainathan, found that people affected by poverty scored as much as ten points lower than they had prior or post entering poverty.

“Our results suggest that when you’re poor, money is not the only thing in short supply; cognitive capacity is also stretched thin,” Mullainathan explained. “That’s not to say that poor people are less intelligent than others. What we show is that the same person experiencing poverty suffers a cognitive deficit as opposed to when they’re not experiencing poverty. It’s also wrong to suggest that someone’s cognitive capacity has gotten smaller because they’re poor. In fact, what happens is that your effective capacity gets smaller: Because you have all these other things on your mind, you have less mind to give to everything else.”

“Imagine you’re sitting in front of a computer, and it’s just incredibly slow,” he continued. “But then you realize that it’s working in the background to play a huge video that’s downloading. It’s not that the computer is slow, it’s that it’s doing something else, so it seems slow to you. I think that’s the heart of what we’re trying to say.”

The idea that poverty induces stress is far from being new, almost everybody is aware of this, and those who have been or are still experiencing poverty know this better than anyone. The implications of the findings are far reaching, however, because they show a different side to the age long theory that says the social-economic discrepancies between the poor and the rich are due to environmental considerations. It’s not just that – the poor are effectively getting their cognitive bandwidth taxed, deepening the class gap. Something that policymakers should pay particular attention to.

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Poor income, poor mental power

Mullainathan reached these conclusions after he studied two dramatically different groups, from almost all perspectives (social, economic, ethnic) –  shoppers at a New Jersey mall and sugar cane farmers in rural India.

When approaching the first group, Mullainathan further divided it into two. Before proceeding with standard IQ and impulse control tests, he asked the first half of the group only “what would they do if their car broke down, and the repair cost $1,500.” The question was meant to surface at a subconscious level their own, personal financial strains. Just thinking about it made a whole lot of difference in their scoring abilities for some people, namely the poor.

“For the poor, because these monetary concerns are just below the surface, the question brings them to the top,” Mullainathan said. “The result was, for that group, the gap between the rich and the poor goes up, in both IQ and impulse control. There was no gap in the other group, but ask them anything that makes them think about money and you see this result.”

The second group represents a more versatile testing medium. Sugar cane farmers experience invariable wealth through out the year. The farmers only get paid once a year, after harvest when they’re relatively rich. As their funds diminish through out the year, they experience a poorer and poorer lifestyle peaking at one month before harvest.

“The month after the harvest, they’re pretty rich, but the month before — when the money has run out — they’re pretty poor,” Mullainathan said. “What we did is look at the same people the month before and the month after the harvest, and what we see is that IQ goes up, cognitive control, or errors, goes way down, and response times go way down.

“The effect here is about two-thirds of the size of the effect found in the mall study — it’s at least nine or 10 IQ points, just between these months,” Mullainathan added. “Between these two studies, you both see the mechanism at work, and you see that, in the real world, these effects are enormous.”

Of note is a different study, independent from the current study, which ZME Science featured a while ago. Then, I wrote how Martha Farah, the founding director for Penn’s Center for Neuroscience and Society, found a direct link between poverty and stunting of brain development in children. Though her findings are still preliminary, they are more alarming than the current study featured in this piece. While Mullainathan’s study subjects aren’t less intelligent, just overloaded and flooded, Farah’s subjects experience permanent brain deficiencies. Something well worth considering, again, when discussing the far reaching implications of poverty.

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Calming the mind by isolating poverty

With this in mind, the research propose policymakers to address these issues by directing efforts meant to isolate periods of acute poverty. As an example, the researchers mention the growing issue U.S. parents face with  the cost and availability of child care.

“One of the major challenges for low-income individuals in the U.S. is having to juggle and find child care,” he said. “That’s a big cognitive load. Seamlessly solving the child-care problem would not just allow people to go to work, it would actually increase their IQ. Rather than simply looking at these challenges as a lack of money very broadly, if we could break it up and simply target the biggest concerns and deal with them, we might begin to solve other problems as well.”

Journal reference: Poverty Impedes Cognitive Function, Anandi Mani, Sendhil Mullainathan, Eldar Shafir, and Jiaying Zhao, Science 30 August 2013, Vol. 341 no. 6149 pp. 969-970, DOI: 10.1126/science.1244172

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