Bioethics Forum Essay

“Poverty Impedes Cognitive Function” – Reason to Help, or Blame, the Poor?

“’The lower the caste,’ said Mr. Foster, ‘the shorter the oxygen.’ The first organ affected was the brain. After that the skeleton.” In Brave New World cognitive ability is carefully and intentionally bred out of the lowest rungs of society. Although he was writing fiction, Aldous Huxley reminds us of an uncomfortable truth about our own society–the poor are sometimes assumed to be less intelligent than people who are well-off. Such thinking comes into play in debates over the value of public assistance programs. If, in fact, the poor are less intelligent, can they be trusted to make good decisions, such as using food stamps to buy healthy food?

Last month an article in Science, titled “Poverty Impedes Cognitive Function,” concluded that there is a “causal, not merely correlational, relationship between poverty and mental function.”  The research featured two studies. One of them was a laboratory study in which a series of tests was given to New Jersey shoppers separated into a rich and a poor group. The second, a field test, involved similar tasks for Indian sugarcane farmers before and after harvest. Since the farmers gained the bulk of their annual income from their harvest, this study compared the performance of the farmers when they were relatively poor and well-off.

The laboratory experiment first randomly assigned members of the New Jersey rich and poor groups to consider a hypothetical household financial decision about a small ($150) or large ($1,500) amount of money. The idea was to induce different levels of stress in the groups, with the decision involving the larger sum presumed to induce more stress overall and particularly more stress in the poor group. Then, while considering this decision the groups undertook identical cognitive tasks.

The poor did worse than the rich on the tasks overall, and the poor who were under the most stress – because they had been assigned to the $1,500 financial decision–did worst of all.  This finding suggested two things: that low income is correlated with poor cognitive performance and that concern about money induces cognitive stress that further impairs mental ability.

To ensure the applicability of their results, the researchers added the field test to see if rural Indian farmers’ cognitive performance would change in correlation with their current financial conditions. The Indian farmers performed better on the cognitive tests after they had the security and plenty of their harvest. (The researchers controlled for any advantage to the farmers from repeating the tasks.)

The researchers explain the effect of poverty on cognitive performance this way:  “preoccupations with pressing budgetary concerns leave fewer cognitive resources available to guide choice and action.”  This supports their argument that their findings demonstrate need for anti-poverty programs. Ashutosh Jogalekar, writing in Scientific Americanagrees:  “the conclusion of the study is simple; due to their circumstances, the poor are simply less focused, more mentally exhausted, more lacking in self-control and less able to make decisions abetting their well-being. They need help.”

But that help is not being delivered now that antipoverty programs such as food stamps are being cut, as they have this past week. I am concerned that this research could be used to support biased views about the poor and doubts about the effectiveness of anti-poverty programs. TheSciencepaper measured limits in “the ability to guide thought and action in accordance with internal goals.”  This reinforces what other studies have shown, correlating poverty with poor decision-making: less use of preventive care, lateness, and mismanagement of finances.

However,Scienceresearch has the potential to revolutionize how antipoverty programs are implemented by demonstrating the necessity of help for the poor and ways that anti-poverty programs might be improved. It concludes that “policy-makers should beware of imposing cognitive taxes on the poor just as they avoid monetary taxes on the poor.”  For instance, complex forms for public assistance may impair the ability of people to make healthy choices, despite their will to do so. The researchers recommend that forms and procedures be as simple as possible.

We have all heard the rhetoric on “welfare queens” who use government assistance to buy items that are not the healthiest or are extravagant. And as the 2012 presidential election reminded us, terms such as “food stamp president” or the “47%” while factually flawed are powerful motivators to cut anti-poverty programs. This dialogue promotes a stigmatizing notion of poverty, blaming people for struggling and arguing that helping them is unnecessary or futile.

Since the Science study demonstrates that financial concerns burden people’s ability to think clearly, it is not fair to blame the poor for failing to make the healthiest choices. The burden of poverty is linked to agency, limiting ones abilities to act in line with one’s desires and compromising one’s decision-making capacity. People may be working as hard as possible to better their situation without truly being able to improve it.

The new research should be used to advocate for assistance. The farther we can get from fatalistic understandings of intelligence and its relation to socioeconomic status the better. No one chemically engineers the poorest Americans to have their cognitive abilities taxed, but decisions are being made every day that deplete the brain and then the skeleton.

Mohini Banerjee is a research assistant at The Hastings Center.

Posted by Susan Gilbert at 09/26/2013 01:48:13 PM |

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