Saturday, August 31, 2013

Princeton study: Poverty drives down intelligence

I think I've always known this.

I remember watching the early seasons of "The Waltons" and my Dad, who remembered the Great Depression, refusing to watch.

"It's a lie," he'd say.  "They want to show you this family closing ranks and prospering despite their poverty, but the reality is that being poor tears families apart."

Late I encountered Ruby Payne's work on the culture of poverty, and it reinforced what my Dad had said; everything I saw there matched to everything I saw in the real world.

But now it turns out that there may be measurable cognitive deficit associated with being in poverty.

Here's what a Princeton study recently published in Science shows:
In a series of experiments, the researchers found that pressing financial concerns had an immediate impact on the ability of low-income individuals to perform on common cognitive and logic tests. On average, a person preoccupied with money problems exhibited a drop in cognitive function similar to a 13-point dip in IQ, or the loss of an entire night's sleep.--snip-- 
"Previous views of poverty have blamed poverty on personal failings, or an environment that is not conducive to success," she said. "We're arguing that the lack of financial resources itself can lead to impaired cognitive function. The very condition of not having enough can actually be a cause of poverty."--snip-- 
"Stress itself doesn't predict that people can't perform well -- they may do better up to a point," Shafir said. "A person in poverty might be at the high part of the performance curve when it comes to a specific task and, in fact, we show that they do well on the problem at hand. But they don't have leftover bandwidth to devote to other tasks. The poor are often highly effective at focusing on and dealing with pressing problems. It's the other tasks where they perform poorly." 
The fallout of neglecting other areas of life may loom larger for a person just scraping by, Shafir said. Late fees tacked on to a forgotten rent payment, a job lost because of poor time-management -- these make a tight money situation worse. And as people get poorer, they tend to make difficult and often costly decisions that further perpetuate their hardship, Shafir said. He and Mullainathan were co-authors on a 2012 Science paper that reported a higher likelihood of poor people to engage in behaviors that reinforce the conditions of poverty, such as excessive borrowing.
No, this is not a suggestion that we could make all the poor kids in school smarter by giving their parents money.

But it does raise food for thought with that anxiety about your family situation (money, living conditions, divorce, drugs, illness) is playing hell with low SES children's concentration and cognitive abilities in a way that most teachers have intuitively always known.


Nancy Willing said...

exactly, I have this to do as a post in my queue so am glad you got to it today.

kids from poverty can't be held to account in teacher evaluation without a significant weighting for these environmentally driven deficits.

Steve Newton said...


Because kids were on my mind in terms of a post I commented on over at kilroy's about poor kids and their parents.

My assumption is (and this is, to me, borne out by my adopted daughter's experiences) that grinding poverty also has the same effect on the kids as the parents.

kavips said...

Why not give parents money? You're a parent, how much do you think we'd need?