Analysis: the Mind of the Poor

Published on To The Point Analyses, by Lawrence Davidson, November 2, 2013.

Part I – Poverty:

Most of the poverty in the United States is artificially manufactured. It is poverty created in the pursuit of “free market ideals,” expressed in recent times by the imposition of neoliberal economic policies – the sort of policies that cut taxes on the wealthy, do away with fiscal and other business regulations, undermine the social safety net and erode middle-class stability – all while singing the praises of self-reliance and individual responsibility. 

As a result we have done very well in making the rich richer and the poor both poorer and more numerous … //

… Part II – Cognitive Dysfunction:

The neoliberal outlook is demonstrably wrong in a significant way. The notion that the poor can make “free and rational choices” and thus can be held responsible for their situation is incorrect. There is accumulating evidence that poverty literally “messes with your mind” in a way that obstructs responsible choices. In fact, the “free market” contributes to an environment that makes the poor decidedly unfree: confused, preoccupied, and feeling overwhelmed and hopeless. In other words, being poor makes you cognitively dysfunctional.

The latest research to show this was published in August 2013 in the journal Science and is titled “Poverty Impedes Cognitive Function.” The gist of the argument is, “Poverty captures attention, triggers intrusive thoughts, and reduces cognitive resources.” In other words, the more preoccupied one is with troubles, the less able one is to muster the “cognitive resources” necessary to rationally “guide choice and action.” Most people find themselves overwhelmed with problems now and then, but not constantly. What living in poverty does is to hit a person with a toxic cocktail of overwhelming problems day in and day out: financial problems, health problems, parenting issues, victimization by criminals and others, and the problem of just finding and keeping a job … //

… Part III – Conclusion:

It is quite interesting how the authors of the Science article conclude their piece. As it turns out, they have chosen to sidestep the real implications of their own data. Thus, they tell us “this perspective has important policy implications. First, policy-makers should beware of imposing cognitive taxes on the poor.” What does that mean? It means that policy-makers should try to reduce the number of forms the poor have to fill out, the number of “lengthy interviews” they have to experience, the number of “new rules” they have to “decipher,” all of which “consume cognitive resources” that we now know the poor have less of than those who are better off. Also, policy-makers should time their demands on the poor for specific periods when they are best able to handle them, such as when they receive whatever periodic income that they do get and momentarily feel less monetary stress. These conclusion constitute a rather shocking anticlimactic letdown!

The authors have helped us see the enormous damage poverty does. In response society has a moral obligation to deal with more than forms and lengthy interviews. History tells us that we can do, and indeed have done, much better. Short of radical changes in our economic thinking, what the poor in the U.S. need is another “War on Poverty.” Indeed, the obligation is not just a moral one. There is a collective economic self-interest to minimize poverty for to do so will decrease income inequality, increase overall health, promote social stability and lessen crime. It will also promote consumption, which should make the capitalists among us happy.

Do our politicians understand any of this? Seems not. Just this week Congress cut the Food Stamp program by some $40 billion. That is neoliberal economics in action and proof positive that ideology and prejudice are stronger than scientific research when it comes to policy formulation. Is there a way to reverse this stupidity? Yes, but it will take mass action. It is time to consider replaying the 1960s and force the politicians to act responsibly despite themselves.
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