Poverty of Mind: the Cognitive Debt of the Poor

A study by UK Warwick University has proved that poverty has a negative causal effect on cognitive ability. The effect is significant — equal to losing a full night’s sleep or comparable to the reduction of cognitive performance in alcoholic adults compared to non-alcoholic adults.

The pressures of poverty exhaust cognitive resources, hinder the ability to make positive life choices and shackle the poor to life-long poverty.

The study, “Poverty Impedes Cognition” led by Dr Anandi Mani, Economics Professor at Warwick University, sheds new light on the cycle of poverty and shows for the first time that it is the flaw of poverty, not the poor, that maintains the poverty trap.

The poor, in this view, are less capable not because of inherent traits, but because the very context of poverty imposes load and impedes cognitive capacity. The findings, in otherwords, are not about poor people, but about any people who find themselves poor.”

Research techniques

Poverty,  defined  broadly as ” the gap between one’s needs and the resources available to fulfill them,” enabled the study to be opened up in both developed and developing countries.

To prove the hypothesis that monetary concerns tax the cognitive system, cognitive exercises were conducted on participants recruited from a New Jersey Shopping Mall consisting of a “poor” group with an average household income of $20,000 and a “well-off” group with an average income of $70,000.

The findings of the laboratory tests were backed up with field tests on farmers; ideal candidates for study due to the cyclic experience of poverty and wealth during the planting cycle.

Test 1 – poor v rich group

The two groups were given identical reasoning tests designed to induce thoughts about finance, specifically their own. Participants were asked to problem solve to find the best method of repair for a car. One solution involved a minimal cost of $150, the other $1,500. The solution involving $1,500 reduced cognitive performance among the poor but not in the well-off group. Dr Mani comments on the significance –

Just as an air traffic controller focusing on a potential collision course is prone to neglect other planes in the air, the poor, when attending to monetary concerns, lose their capacity to give other problems their full consideration.”

The hypothesis of the cognitive testing was thus proved. Financial problems were not seen to cause concern in those with sufficient resources.

For those without adequate funds the “load” of a financial problem was shown to overwhelm the cognitive system –

We hypothesized that for the rich, these run-of-the-mill financial snags are of little con- sequence. For the poor, however, these demands can trigger persistent and distracting concerns.” Dr Anandi Mani.

Test 2 – Harvesting cognition

Farmers were tested for their cognitive ability during the planting cycle. Before harvest when “poor,” farmers were less likely to perform well in cognitive tests. After harvest when “rich,” the cognitive performance of farmers significantly improved. This proved the cognitive depletion in the same group of people who experience cycles of wealth. According to researchers, the findings could not be explained by nutrition, time available, stress or work effort alone.

The human cognitive system has limited capacity Preoccupations with press- ing budgetary concerns leave fewer cognitive resources available to guide choice and action.”

A New Insight into Poverty

Research into poverty has focused mainly on the behaviors of the poor; low attainment in education, struggling to keep appointments, poor budgeting in personal finance, low engagement with services. This study is the first to look into how the behaviors that exasperate poverty first come about.

Researchers hope that the findings inform policy makers to make education, training, health and funding straight forward and easy to access. Policy makers should avoid all complexity or a “cognitive tax” on the poor –

First, policy-makers should beware of imposing cognitive taxes on the poor just as they avoid monetary taxes on the poor. The data reported here suggest a different perspective on poverty: Being poor means coping not just with a shortfall of money, but also with a concurrent shortfall of cognitive resources.”

Researcher suggest simple and no cost interventions could help people, such as –

  • smart defaults (selections put in place that serve most people)
  • help to fill out application forms
  • planning prompts
  • reminders for appointments

Policy and Poverty

Filling out long forms, preparing for a lengthy interview, deciphering new rules, corresponding to complex incentives,all consume cognitive resources. Policy-makers rarely recognize these cognitive taxes; yet, our results suggest that they should focus on reducing them” (report excerpt)

The benefit system can be labyrinthine. Historical decisions by government can mean that puzzling systems are in place to serve the most vulnerable.

In a deprived UK coastal town, a community centre for section 4 failed asylum seekers supported by the UK Border Agency UKBA are given food vouchers — their only means of support.

A food voucher is issued but with no means to buy a bus ticket to reach the out of town supermarket for which they are eligible– a large superstore on the furthest outskirts of town. It’s a 2 mile walk of 45 minutes for those who know the best route.

This town is a dispersion centre for newly failed asylum seekers, many have just arrived from other parts of the UK to eek out a non-life where everything is a no-no. No right to work, no medical care, no attending free community training or volunteering even. The weekly voucher was their lot.

This was the case in 2010. Shortly after an “Azure” card replaced the one-store only vouchers to enable fairer shopping.  According to The Guardian, the card rarely worked at point of sale. Navigating hurdles — as impossible as they are daily, leaves little in terms of the cognitive resources, or hope, necessary to create a better life.


Science Magazine: Poverty Impedes Cognitive Function

Medical News Today article

Rules for Asylum Seekers Section 4

Image credit: with thanks to Kalilo of RGB
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