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The Almighty Buck Science

The Cognitive Cost of Poverty 459

Posted by Soulskill
from the will-work-for-bandwidth dept.
An anonymous reader writes "It's a common trope that most poor people are poor because they're lazy or just inherently bad with money. But a new study (abstract) makes a fascinating find: being poor actually reduces your cognitive capabilities when thinking about money. 'In a series of experiments run by researchers at Princeton, Harvard, and the University of Warwick, low-income people who were primed to think about financial problems performed poorly on a series of cognition tests, saddled with a mental load that was the equivalent of losing an entire night's sleep. Put another way, the condition of poverty imposed a mental burden akin to losing 13 IQ points, or comparable to the cognitive difference that's been observed between chronic alcoholics and normal adults.' This makes the difficulty in climbing out of poverty much easier to understand. The researchers also demonstrated causality by showing that thinking about a very small expense led to no impairment, while thinking about a very large expense did. They confirmed this by looking at a group of farmers in India who tend to receive most of their income at one time — immediately following their harvest. Shortly before that payment, when the farmers had very little money, their scores dropped as well."
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The Cognitive Cost of Poverty

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  • FTFY (Score:5, Informative)

    by ThePhilips (752041) on Saturday August 31, 2013 @11:58AM (#44724455) Homepage Journal

    It's a common trope in USA that most poor people are poor because they're lazy or just inherently bad with money.

    FTFY.

    Otherwise, I have seen plenty of rich people who were also pretty bad with money.

    • Re:FTFY (Score:5, Insightful)

      by ShanghaiBill (739463) on Saturday August 31, 2013 @12:17PM (#44724579)

      I have seen plenty of rich people who were also pretty bad with money.

      Rich people that inherit their money often manage it poorly. There is an old saying: The first generation earns a fortune, the second generation sits on it, the third generations squanders it. But rich people that got there on their own are pretty much by definition good with money.

      My experience with poor people is that they don't see the connection between large and small amounts of money. They see the money they spend on a soda, and the money they need to send their kid to college as completely unrelated. They are unable to comprehend that by drinking water instead of three sodas a day, and putting the savings into a tax deferred education savings account, they can easily afford in-state tuition at a good university.

      • Re:FTFY (Score:5, Insightful)

        by Barsteward (969998) on Saturday August 31, 2013 @12:51PM (#44724829)
        when you are living on the bread line, you tend to have a more short term attitude to things. So if they get a bit more money than usual, they will enjoy it quickly as a treat against all the other times where they are having a hard time
      • by peragrin (659227)

        Take a look at income taxes. a lot of people pay more out of pocket expenses that way they know they get a little back at the end of the year instead of scrambling to come up with a huge payment at the end of the year.

      • There is an old saying: The first generation earns a fortune, the second generation sits on it, the third generations squanders it.

        One can only hope that this will prove true for Kim Jong-Un also.

      • Re:FTFY (Score:4, Insightful)

        by AlphaWolf_HK (692722) on Saturday August 31, 2013 @01:08PM (#44724941)

        My experience with poor people is so varied, because I've seen them all. I live around poor people all the time. I don't rag on them for being poor, but I know why they are and I know that they are also undeserving of handouts. I've seen those who are very stingy with money, and I've seen those whose pockets have a bigger hole than an opening.

        They all seem to have a few things in common though: They have little incentive to pull in an income, and/or they really don't understand the concept of investment.

        One thing is clear though: Handing money to poor people isn't the answer. It never will be. If what I'm saying weren't true, then lottery winners would stay rich after getting all of that money. They don't though, that money eventually runs out, and usually within only a few years.

        • Re:FTFY (Score:5, Insightful)

          by girlintraining (1395911) on Saturday August 31, 2013 @02:18PM (#44725381)

          I don't rag on them for being poor, but I know why they are and I know that they are also undeserving of handouts.

          So you just don't tell them you hate them to their face. How noble of you.

          They all seem to have a few things in common though: They have little incentive to pull in an income, and/or they really don't understand the concept of investment.

          I don't know if you're aware of this, but public education was an idea that came from the working class. It was fought by the elite class for decades, despite popular support. Labor unions repeatedly shutting down factories and killing profits was what eventually created the federal mandate that public education be available in all states. After that, it was a fight to get blacks and minorities into schools, necessitating the national guard coming out to forcibly open the doors of schools in the South and allow them in. And now, higher education is being rapidly priced into extinction, and it is disproportionately affecting the working class.

          So when you say "they don't really understand", consider the possibility that it's not because they can't understand, but lack access to resources that would allow them to.

          One thing is clear though: Handing money to poor people isn't the answer. It never will be.

          But handing money to CEOs "too big to fail" and banks so corrupt they put the entire economy in the drink for over a decade is? Why do you feel that it is more likely that hundreds of millions of Americans are lazy than that a few thousand of them are greedy?

          • Re:FTFY (Score:4, Insightful)

            by hazah (807503) on Saturday August 31, 2013 @03:19PM (#44725709)
            He feels that way because it's easier, it's convenient, and it places him above other people. Elitism is a funny thing and comes from the strangest of places.
          • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

            by Laxori666 (748529)
            Oh my. There's just so many fallacies in your post. I just have to go through it and point them all out now.

            So you just don't tell them you hate them to their face. How noble of you.

            No, he said they are undeserving of handouts, not that he hates them. There are other reasons to think someone is undeserving of a handout than hating them. For example, you can observe that when a particular person in a rough financial situation comes into some unexpected money, they immediately spend it instead of saving it and investing it. You might even like the person. But that would be a good r

      • Re:FTFY (Score:5, Informative)

        by girlintraining (1395911) on Saturday August 31, 2013 @01:14PM (#44724993)

        They are unable to comprehend that by drinking water instead of three sodas a day, and putting the savings into a tax deferred education savings account, they can easily afford in-state tuition at a good university.

        Or perhaps they comprehend it just fine, but they make a choice you disagree with: Like after working a 10 hour shift for $7.25 an hour, they would like to have at least a small creature comfort, so they buy a six pack of beer (or soda), instead of going home and enjoying tasteless and bland tap-water. The thing about being poor that everyone forgets is that everything that might relieve the boredom and stress of long hours for little reward costs something. It's easy to say "I'll save a few dollars a day" when you've got a fat paycheck -- but when you have nothing and you're looking to those couple of dollars leftover in your wallet, it's hard to say "You don't exist, go away". But psychology aside, there's still the troubling issue of your really, really bad math skills.

        Let's analyze your example of "three sodas a day". For the 2012-2013 year, tuition costs for state residents at a community college averaged $8,655 [collegedata.com] across the country. We're going to ignore cost of living adjustments, peripheral expenses like books, lost wages, and everything else. We're going to take just that tuition number and that will be the cost of "easily afford" at a "good university".

        The cost of a 'soda', which to give you the best case scenario, will be for one of the plastic 16 oz variety, which averages about $1.50 right now. So we're going to go with $4.50 per day being blown on soda. In 1,923 days -- about 5.25 years worth of not drinking soda per year of tuition.

        Now, given the rate of inflation combined with the rate that tuition has been rising, it's safe to say that number will be higher. And when you consider that tuition is only perhaps 2/3rds of the fees you'll be paying... that number goes up even more.

        Bottom line here is that your assertion that saving the equivalent of three sodas a day ($4.50) can buy someone a college education is possible, but absurd. You would spend half your working life waiting. In reality, you're going to have to save more to make it happen. Working a minimum wage job, you're only going to be pulling in about $36 a day (at best). Odds are good you'll be clearing even less.

        You're asking someone for whom three sodas a day accounts for about 1/8th of their total personal income to save even more to make this do-able. You'd have to at least double, and probably triple, the savings rate, to get into college within a reasonable timeframe.

        Frankly, when you take rent, utilities, and everything else into consideration... a minimum wage job simply cannot sustain that level of investment. Not unless you want to starve, rack up debt elsewhere (like late fees, bank overdraft fees, etc.) -- which will happen anyway when you're living paycheck by paycheck.

        The bottom line here is that what these scientists is saying has nothing to do with the conclusions you and many others are reaching: Which is that you can "think" your way out of poverty, or that the problem can be resolved by simple mathematical ability. It is much bigger than that. All this study does is show that when financial resources become severely constrained, people are poor judges of how to best utilize those limited resources.

        It provides no guidance on a viable strategy for emerging from that environment, and your flippant advice about simply not drinking soda is symptomatic of another, perhaps larger problem, that poor people face: Prejudice.

        • Re:FTFY (Score:5, Insightful)

          by Teun (17872) on Saturday August 31, 2013 @03:48PM (#44725873) Homepage
          This is a bit off-topic but your calculation shows us the issues surrounding a fair minimum wage.
          Fair means to me your days labour pays for a day's life, not a day of suffering.
          That day's life should include savings for later, including savings for the future of your kids.

          If your income cannot support this your job is not only useless for you but to society as a whole, your boss/employer might seem to make money over your back but at the end of the day/week/month/year/life we as a society are stuck with a family that needs support to survive, forget about advancing the pool of society.

          A fair and sufficient minimum wage might initially look like a burden for the company or employer but in the long term it helps us all.
          A day's work that cannot pay for a workers life and future is by definition inefficient and in the longer term will cost us all.

      • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

        by Anonymous Coward

        I agree with most of what you're saying, but as a single parent that's not doing too bad and who likes soda, this is a poor example.

        3 sodas a day is half of a 2L bottle which costs me 88 cents. Drinking water means a savings of 44 cents a day. That's $160/year, split across both of my kids. $80/year/kid doesn't come even close to paying for anything school related, even for younger kids. And investing such a small amount at todays' rates which are darn close to 0% won't do anything either.

      • Soda saves me money (Score:4, Interesting)

        by tepples (727027) <tepples&gmail,com> on Saturday August 31, 2013 @02:03PM (#44725291) Homepage Journal

        by drinking water instead of three sodas a day

        I have a mental disability whose treatment requires stimulant medication. I went on Diet Mtn Dew (caffeine) at $1 per day to get off Strattera (atomoxetine) at $4 per day plus the cost of regular doctor visits to renew the prescription.

        they can easily afford in-state tuition at a good university.

        But would that cover textbooks, room and board, and the like? If you mean that the kids should go to school in town and live with parents, that would require the parents to spend even more to move within public transit range of the school.

        • by vilanye (1906708)
          Why not just buy caffeine pills and skip the fake sugar and other crap in Mountain Dew? It is funny how marijuana is so controlled and regulated but caffeine is not even a little bit regulated.
    • Otherwise, I have seen plenty of rich people who were also pretty bad with money.

      If they're truly bad, they won't be rich for long. A person who is really bad with money will take all his money and spend it as fast as his can. Think of lottery winners who lose it all within a few years, a depressingly common scenario.

    • It's a common trope in USA that most poor people are poor because they're lazy or just inherently bad with money.

      FTFY.

      Otherwise, I have seen plenty of rich people who were also pretty bad with money.

      True, but they are too big to fail ...

  • Common trope by rich people. Let them eat cake.

    • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

      by killkillkill (884238)

      A common trope by rich people who worked their tails off and sacrificed a lot in the beginning, who are told that "their fair share" has to go to support people who spend their money on frivolous gratifications. I'm not rich yet, but I plan to be. I went into the SS office and half of the people there had out their Androids/iPhones. I am a guy who is pretty into tech, but have gone without a smart phone because the ridiculous price for a data plan isn't worth it for the instant gratification of checking my

      • by RabidReindeer (2625839) on Saturday August 31, 2013 @01:56PM (#44725251)

        A common trope by rich people who worked their tails off and sacrificed a lot in the beginning, who are told that "their fair share" has to go to support people who spend their money on frivolous gratifications. I'm not rich yet, but I plan to be. I went into the SS office and half of the people there had out their Androids/iPhones. I am a guy who is pretty into tech, but have gone without a smart phone because the ridiculous price for a data plan isn't worth it for the instant gratification of checking my email between work and home. I go without to get ahead a bit only to be told I now have to subsidize those things for others. My wife and I spend $240 a month total on food, and that includes a couple date nights out a month. Getting fast food or whatever everyday would be so much easier, but I want to improve my place. The lesson in this: Be irresponsible and you get it now and later.

        Though, most rich people still look past it and still care enough for humanity that even beyond their higher taxes they are also the most generous and donate a much high percentage to charity. Keep blaming rich people and buying beer and cigarettes (if you are poor) or big screen TVs and new cars (if you are middle class) and the greatest chance in the history of the world for social mobility will never be yours.

        Keep planning. If you are lucky, life won't get in the way of that plan.

      • by dkleinsc (563838)

        My basic thoughts on this:
        1. Characteristics that are necessary to become rich (if you aren't born into it) include discipline, education, a work ethic, and luck.
        2. The majority of people with education, discipline, and a work ethic are not millionaires.
        3. Ergo, no matter how disciplined and educated and hard-working you are, you should not plan on being rich.

        That's not saying being frugal and smart about your spending is a bad thing, but just be realistic about your prospects. Also be aware that you could

  • by TheModelEskimo (968202) on Saturday August 31, 2013 @12:42PM (#44724771)
    ...children who ate a healthy breakfast did better at an IQ test than children who were beaten the same morning.
  • by BenEnglishAtHome (449670) on Saturday August 31, 2013 @12:43PM (#44724779)

    30 years ago I worked with a former social worker of long experience who had just changed jobs seeking a steadier paycheck. She said that poverty produced a constant stress over not feeling safe that basic needs would be met. Her view was that that constant stress often resulted in serious mental disfunction.

    "Poverty makes you crazy...or at least stupid" was her standard rejoinder whenever we ran across someone who did something stupid with what little money they had.

    From the Hierarchy of Needs, to my co-worker, to this new study - has anything changed? Not really. But it seems the relevant points need to be made over and over again because they just aren't getting through.

    • by CastrTroy (595695) on Saturday August 31, 2013 @12:53PM (#44724845) Homepage
      I've heard of other stuff related to this. Children who grow up in an abusive or unstable home are basically in "fight or flight" mode all day long. They never get a chance to relax. A lot of these kids end up with symptoms similar to PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder), which is what soldiers or other people living in warzones usually get.
    • by fermion (181285) on Saturday August 31, 2013 @01:32PM (#44725103) Homepage Journal
      First, I read this paper yesterday and for a piece of social science I was rather impressed with the methodology. I think they took care to cover the variables and carefully limit their conclusions to what could be inferred fro the experiment.

      That said, the media reports, as normal, tend to focus on the headline value rather than the research. Although the paper does talk about poverty, it is in the context of having to live in poverty, not being poor. From the conclusion
      The findings, in other words, are not about poor people, but about any people who find themselves poor.
      The paper specifically talks about providing scaffolding to those who find themselves with funds, instead of just expecting them to act like an average person with enough money. The authors call the normal methods of intervention as incurring 'cognitive taxes' and say that things such as "Filling out long forms, preparing for a lengthy interview, deciphering new rules," should be minimized on the basis of this research. T

      So I think that just saying poor people make poor financial decisions, or variations of that, is not really what is being concluded. We all make poor decisions, even if we are well off. I buy pints on Hagan Das for $4 that I really do not need with money I really do not have. Other people lease a BMW or go out and spend huge amounts on wine. Even if one has money today, it is hard to justify these extravagances for a purely rational point of view. A person spending every penny the make is certainly to some degree irrational no matter how much they make.

      Rather, I think that the research can tell us what happens to people when they become fiscally stressed. People who are pepertually in this state are certain a prime concern, and we must take any effect on cognitive behavior into account, but anyone in financial straights are going to be effected as well. In the paper they use farmers as an example, and attempt to show that better decisions are made after a good harvest rather than later when thing are less abundant.

      Here is how I would think about it using an example from the housing bubble. At first, when times were good, people bought hoses to live in or rented as they could. They paid their mortgages or rent and all was well. At time went on, and their friends were living better, and they felt poor, these people bought homes or bigger homes, often with adjustable rate, interest only, or buble mortgages. At some point they actually did become financially stressed, as property taxes went up, or repairs had to be made, or interests rate rose, and they begin to make truly poor decisions, such as borrowing equity from their homes to pay for vacations, or beer, or fancy dinners, or a new BMW.

      Now clearly these people did not make these poor choices on their own. They were helped, even prodded. Which is, IMHO, the point. Perhaps we should not have policy that tend to push people into worse situations. It may not really the homeowners fault that they lost their house if cognitive function decreases with financial stress. It may not be students fault that they have big students loans if the school took advantage of, and ever promoted, the financial stress on the student or parents.

      • by wbr1 (2538558)

        Perhaps we should not have policy that tend to push people into worse situations. It may not really the homeowners fault that they lost their house if cognitive function decreases with financial stress.

        I counter with the fact that capitalism requires the opposite. In the search for profit, a corporation does not care who or what it exploits, even if it is a lack of 'financial smarts'.

        In fact, I see this research being used by corporations to further target those with poverty related financial issues.

        "Filling out long forms, preparing for a lengthy interview, deciphering new rules," should be minimized on the basis of this research."

        In a way this is already what usurious, poverty feeding companies like

  • by lionchild (581331) on Saturday August 31, 2013 @01:22PM (#44725043) Journal

    This isn't actually really new news for some folks in the US. Public Educators have know this sort of thing in the form of other studies for many years.

    For example, studies have shown that people who are low-income, tend to favor larger quantities of food. Middle-class/income favor higher quality foods, and when it comes to upper-income/class, they are more interested in the quality of the presentation of food.

    We have long since known that low-income families have higher risks for needing additional aid in learning, because they do carry a much heavier mental/emotional burden than other families. They're constantly worried about if they'll have enough money to put food on the table, to keep the lights on, or even pay the rent. If low-income families first pay rent, food, utilities and transportation, they are in a completely different mental/emotional position than if they're worrying about one of those basic areas not being covered.

  • Being poor involves constant threats to status and welfare, and constant stressors that people with more means don't have. One thing I've learned is that a lot of problems simply vanish if you throw money at them. Without the money to throw, you're facing a huge cognitive and emotional load that the financially secure are not burdened with.

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