Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Poverty and the Brain

Recent findings show that living in poverty, and the mental strains associated, can impede proper brain functioning. A series of experiments run by researchers at Princeton, Harvard, and the University of Warwick in the United Kingdom concluded that living in poverty can tax the cognitive abilities of anyone experiencing it and that those cognitive abilities return when the burden of poverty disappears. In essence, the research found that poverty imposes such a substantial burden that people living under those circumstances have difficulty making important decisions.

Previously released studies showed a correlation between poverty and “counterproductive behavior.” For example, these studies found that the poor are less likely to have preventative health care, fail to adhere to drug regimens, are tardier, and less likely to keep appointments. These behaviors can deepen poverty; however, previous explanations have only focused on the impact of environmental conditions as an explanation—predatory lenders in poor communities may create high interest rate borrowing, and unreliable transportation can cause tardiness and absenteeism. Other studies have focused on what they deemed the “characteristics of the poor,” for example lower levels of formal education that can create misunderstandings about contract terms, and less parental attention that may influence the parenting style of the next generation.

The research recently conducted at Princeton, Harvard, and Warwick is dedicated to a different explanation of poverty, one which focuses on the mental processes required for living in impoverished conditions. Their findings suggest a strong relationship between poverty and mental functioning. The poor must deal with having an inconsistent stream of income, juggle expenses, and are often forced to make difficult compromises, and these everyday occurrences can be distracting. Constant worries about budgetary concerns diminish the cognitive resources available to make thoughtful choices and actions-restricting the ability of people living in poverty to provide full consideration to problems that arise. The findings show that the mental burden of poverty is equivalent to losing 13 IQ points, which is the same as losing an entire night of sleep and is comparable to the cognitive difference observed between chronic alcoholics and “normal” adults.

As the report states, “Being poor means coping with not just a shortfall of money, but also with a concurrent shortfall of cognitive resources.” The importance of this research indicates that the problems associated with the poor are not actually within poor people themselves, but with anyone who finds themselves living in poverty. These findings have important policy implications—policymakers should create strategies and solutions that reduce and avoid cognitive taxes on the poor. Policies focused on alleviating poverty through raising the minimum wage as California recently did, help to address some of the institutional factors impacting poor families across the country. Other policies, which mitigate the effects of poverty, such as food assistance and health care are also ways to assist families trying to make ends meet.

In response to the recently released poverty data, it is important to keep in mind how many people are living within these conditions. Federal budget issues such as the maintained sequester cuts, totaled at a reduction of $986.3 billion in overall discretionary funding, are detrimental to the families that depend on these supports and services to survive.  This not only impacts parents and their children financially – but also cognitively.

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