Why Are The Poor Still Poor?
Research shows that poverty can shape the brain in ways that make it difficult for people to make decisions to help them escape poverty.
Talking to Linda Tirado you quickly get a sense of the chronic desperation that comes with a life of poverty.
But even with her 90-hour workweeks and always living on the edge, Tirado counts herself as one of the lucky ones among the millions of Americans living in poverty.
“I was actually doing really well. I had two jobs. My husband was working. I had a husband. I had a home. I was doing really well,” she said in an interview with Healthline.
But like the meager paychecks she picked up from her service industry jobs, the feeling of doing relatively well never extended very far.
“I’ve always been privileged and at the same time, I have never felt safe, I have never felt secure because every single day of my life was a constant [struggle to] stave off disaster,” she said.
Tirado has written a book about her experiences, “Hand to Mouth: Living in Bootstrap America.” Her circumstances have improved since her book was published, but her words still resonate with many people struggling to get by.
Her book grew out of a response that she wrote to a forum question titled “Why do poor people do things that seem so self-destructive?” But it might as well have been called “Why are the poor still poor?”
The American ‘Work Harder’ Ethic
Neatly tucked into many discussions of poverty is a tacit belief that poor people are poor simply through their own actions — or inaction. This rises out of the long-held concept of the American dream.
There’s a “national value that we have, that there’s opportunity here and everybody can make of their life whatever they want, as long as they’re willing to work for it,” Elliot Berkman, Ph.D., an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Oregon, told Healthline.
This belief, though, is not backed by the research that’s been done on poverty.
“People have that belief, but empirically there’s not really great evidence for that,” said Berkman. “What really determines how much money you make is how much money your parents made.”
A recent study by the National Bureau of Economic Research found that parental income influenced not only children’s future income but also their likelihood of going to college and becoming pregnant as a teenager.
Another myth about poverty is that poor children aren’t equipped to do well in school.
“There are kids who are born in poverty who are plenty smart,” said Berkman, “but the experiences that they have and the strains that are placed on them from outside are quite stark.”
These experiences include poor nutrition, inadequate schools, parents working multiple jobs, and dangerous neighborhoods.
How Poverty Changes the Brain
Poverty can impact a child’s health. But in a vicious cycle, it may also shape the brain in ways that can trap people in poverty.
“Growing up in poverty has pretty damaging effects on your brain and your ability to engage in exactly the kind of things that you would need to engage in to get out of poverty,” said Berkman.
A study earlier this year in Nature Neuroscience found that children from low-income families had less surface area on their brains, compared to children at the highest income bracket. This was accompanied by declines in reading skills and memory.
An earlier 2013 study in Science found that lack of money caused a drop in thinking ability to the equivalent of 13 IQ points.
Even more subtle than these physical effects on the brain is the effect that poverty has on how people make decisions in their life.
Some commentators make the case that poor people have difficulty because they make near-sighted decisions rather than planning for the future — such as saving money for emergencies or buying a house instead of renting.
In psychology, this ability to delay short-term desires for long-term benefits is called self-control. It was first popularized by Walter Mischel in the Stanford marshmallow experiments. In this test, children were given the option of eating one marshmallow now or two marshmallows later if they could wait several minutes while staring down the tasty treat.
Children who were able to withstand the temptation until the researcher returned with the second treat performed better in school, earned more money, and were healthier and happier later in life. They also were less likely to end up in jail, be obese, or use drugs.
On the surface, people living in poverty may appear to lack self-control. But poverty itself can shift their thinking toward the present as a matter of survival.
“If long- and short-term goals are opposed, you have to choose short-term every time,” said Tirado. “It’s fantastic if you’re making good health decisions and you’re going to live into your 90s, but if you don’t have any place to live by next month, what good does that do you?”
This focus on the present shows up in how people living in poverty spend their money.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2012 people in the bottom 20 percent income bracket spent the bulk of their money on food, utilities, housing, and healthcare. Making matters worse, for the roughly 60 percent of low-income people that don’t own a house, the average cost of rent increased 90 percent between 1984 and 2012.
So the very nature of poverty makes it difficult for people to exercise long-term self-control.
“It’s not that they’re not capable of engaging self-control,” said Berkman. “It just makes no sense to save money if you’re living day to day.”
Children Also Trapped in Poverty
Tirado belongs to a group of people that, for whatever reason, fell into poverty as an adult — what some have termed the “downwardly mobile.”
Many adults living in poverty, however, were born into it — and likely to stay in it.
According to 2011 data released by the Census Bureau, there were 16.4 million children living in poverty in the United States. Nearly half live in extreme poverty.
Research shows that the chance of a child whose parents are in the bottom fifth income bracket moving up to the top fifth income bracket is 9 percent.
Poverty also influences children’s academic success. Johns Hopkins University sociologist Karl Alexander, Ph.D., followed 800 Baltimore schoolchildren for a quarter of a century. He found that only 4 percent of low-income children made it to college by age 28, compared to 45 percent of children from higher-income families.
“The implication is where you start in life is where you end up in life,” said Alexander in an interview. “It’s very sobering to see how this all unfolds.”
Children in poverty are affected by the same factors faced by adults — what a National Scientific Council report summarized as “overcrowding, noise, substandard housing, separation from parent(s), exposure to violence, [and] family turmoil.”
For parents in low-income households, though, it’s not just money that’s in short supply. It’s also time. Especially when parents have to hold down two jobs just to make ends barely meet.
“You get home from work [after] many hours and you’re confronting the dishes in the sink and a dinner that needs to be made and laundry that needs to be done and general maintenance and upkeep on your life and a family that you’d like to spend time with,” said Tirado.
This makes it difficult for parents to teach their children life skills that could help them escape poverty later in life.
“Part of the problem with poverty is that it limits parents’ ability to teach those kinds of skills to children,” said Berkman. “It limits their ability to model those skills.”
The brains of children are still developing, so their experiences in poverty will have an even larger effect than on adults. This can have long-term consequences.
“If you look at the kinds of things that happen to your brain and happen to you through experiences when you’re raised in poverty,” said Berkman, “it makes a lot more sense why people can get stuck and why poverty perpetuates across generations.”
Breaking free of the cycle of poverty is not as simple as “working harder.” Before Tirado wrote her book, she was already working two jobs and trying to squeeze everything else in between, including catching a few hours’ sleep each night.
“The thing that people discount is the exhaustion and the toll that takes,” said Tirado.
Berkman suggests that if children don’t learn life skills before they grow up, they will be unlikely to teach them to their own children.
“That’s a key factor that perpetuates poverty across generations and this is something that we could change,” said Berkman. “It would mean investing money in education and resources for poverty, particularly for poor children.”
Parents with barely enough time to sleep may need help teaching their children certain life skills, like self-control. Support could come from schools or government programs targeting children in low-income families.
More Support Needed to Tackle Poverty
Encouraging self-control, though, may require changes to the same government programs that are supposed to be helping low-income families.
Some research indicates that self-control may be a limited resource. So if you waste it on many small choices throughout the day, you could come up short when you have to make a really important decision.
The federal Administration for Children and Families (ACF) is already using behavioral psychology to make it easier for low-income people going through its programs to make better decisions.
“A lot of low-income people apply for benefits, but the requirements needed to keep their benefits can be so taxing that it becomes a cycle of constantly having that on their to-do list,” said Caitlin Anzelone, a research analyst at MDRC, a New York-based social policy research firm that worked on a project funded by the ACF.
Improving self-control — and encouraging better decisions — in these situations may involve eliminating unnecessary steps, providing people with feedback on their actions, making other choices less attractive, or encouraging people to make a pledge to follow-through with a certain action.
“Incorporating things like that into the program might help you design a program that can be stronger and better serve the population that you are trying to serve,” said Anzelone.
With millions of people already living in poverty, this problem is unlikely to go away any time soon. And with the current economy, there are other people who are one paycheck away from either running up a massive debt load or ending up homeless.
“You can literally be doing everything right, you can have budgeted until the cows come home,” said Tirado, “but if one thing goes wrong, your entire life is destroyed. That’s how close to the edge you are.”