Recently I wrote about poverty being the most important determinant of poor health. I touch on poverty fairly frequently in these columns because it really is at the root of many other social and health issues.
One study published in the journal Science, found another difficult consequence of the stress of poverty. According to this research, poverty can lower your IQ.
People often hold the mistaken belief that poor people become poor because they are lazy, not very bright, or perhaps lack basic ambition or motivation to get ahead. Of course the reality is usually more complicated than that, and poverty typically occurs for a variety of reasons usually beyond the individual’s control.
This study out of Harvard University found that the mental energy required to survive with few resources simply crowds everything else out. It occupies the brain to the point that IQ scores are lower regardless of innate intelligence or personality. Indeed, researchers also say the preoccupation with meeting immediate needs can serve to perpetuate the cycle of poverty.
While examining the effect of poverty on cognitive performance, researchers conducted two studies – one involved shoppers at a mall in New Jersey and the other dealt with sugar cane farmers in India.
Shoppers were divided into two groups according to income. Researchers then asked them to consider their financial situation and asked how they would pay for an unexpected car repair.
Some were told they would have a $150 repair while others would have a larger $1,500 repair. After hearing this news, the shoppers took a couple of tests designed to test their IQ.
Those in the higher income group did fine on the test regardless of the cost of their unexpected bill. The poorer subjects did fine when assigned the lower bill of $150, but their test scores plummeted by 13 points when they were faced with the higher repair bill.
Researchers believe the concern over the high bill was using up their brainpower – and the authors of the paper described the theory as similar to a computer running heavy background processes that end up affecting performance. I see this all the time in my practice. Someone loses their job and has no savings. EI or disability insurance payments are delayed for 6-12 weeks during which time they have no money for food or rent. They are totally consumed with anxiety and desperately searching for a solution. They can become paralyzed with lack of confidence, poor self-esteem, inability to concentrate and feelings of hopelessness. Their problem solving abilities become severely impaired.
In order to determine whether this effect had universal application, the team conducted a second study of farmers in rural India.
In this study, the farmers were surveyed before the harvest when their resources were running out and then again after their harvest when they had been paid. Again, test scores were worse when poverty was an issue. Farmers tested while cash strapped before harvest had significantly lower results than after the harvest payment was in.
Regardless of culture or cause, having an urgent and immediate need appears to consume much more of a person’s cognitive energy than we may have thought.
This finding indicates that intelligence is not a cause of poverty, but rather a victim of it. For anyone who has been in this situation the response will likely be ‘obviously!’ For those who haven’t, and who believe their good fortune is a result of superior abilities, perhaps this will be informative.
An important recommendation out of this study is to carefully consider the way we run social welfare programs. If we make these programs unnecessarily burdensome with excessive paperwork and needless bureaucratic hoops to jump through, we may be doing a disservice to those we are trying to help. Instead, we should attempt to ease mental stress and deal with immediate needs so they don’t become simply another barrier to overcome. It never fails to surprise and frustrate me how long it can take to provide the necessary help in an individual's crisis, even when the qualification for help is not in doubt.