Poverty’s Effects on the Brain
By Melissa Winkler
People living in poverty and scarcity face an incredible amount of obstacles on a daily basis: staying in their homes, keeping the utilities turned on, putting food on the table, finding quality childcare for their children so they can work, navigating complex and outdated public transportation systems, staying healthy so they don’t miss any shifts at work, and avoiding unnecessary expenses that will exhaust their already limited budgets. New research shows that this constant worrying not only produces high levels of stress and anxiety, but also affects the brain on a core level- making it even more difficult for people living in poverty to find their way out.
A study from a team of Harvard and Princeton scientists found that people living in poverty are more inclined to make poor or ineffective decisions because their mental capacity for decision making is taxed by the daily concerns of merely surviving poverty: “poverty imposes a cognitive load that saps attention and reduces effort” (Poverty Impedes Cognitive Function, Mani et al.). Cognitive function, according to this research, is a finite resource. When all of your cognitive ability is being used on survival, taking steps toward long-term changes is incredibly difficult. Poverty, then, reshapes brain chemistry.
This kind of research sheds light on the flaws in our fundamental assumptions about moving out of poverty. Our public policies, service delivery models, and general attitudes rely on the assumption that the key to breaking the cycle of poverty is self-disciplined commitment to creating a better life. Essentially, the “pull yourself up by your own bootstraps” narrative that so often dominates our conversations about poverty. What we see with this study and others of the same type is that breaking the cycle is not so simple. Personal resolve and commitment can only happen in environments that are supportive enough to relieve some of the huge burdens of daily life.
It is only when people living in poverty have security in things like their living situation, their job security, their access to food, and their ability to provide for their children can they begin to devote energy to life-changing actions. Systemic support in these areas is crucial for creating real change. Individual cognitive resources are limited, but supportive social and community structures can overcome this scarcity.