I’ve previously shared a number of posts and articles about research showing the negative impact poverty has on “cognitive bandwidth” – the understandable preoccupation with day-to-day survival that sometimes crowds out putting energy into longer-term planning and other behaviors. For example, lack of self-control does not result in poverty; in reality, poverty can cause what might be viewed by some as a lack of self-control.
See The Best Resources Showing Social Emotional Learning Isn’t Enough for those past articles.
Awhile back, The Atlantic ran an interview with sociologist and author Matthew Desmond, headlined The War on Poverty Is Over. Rich People Won. It’s an important interview for a number of reasons.
However, I wanted to specifically highlight this commentary as it relates to the “bandwidth” issue:
Desmond: In Evicted, I followed this woman I called Arlene. After one eviction, she started applying for housing. She applied to 20 apartments. Then 40 apartments. Then 60. Then 80. I was counting, and she was accepted to none of them. Finally, the 90th person said yes. She got rejected 89 times before she heard yes. Rejection, rejection, rejection, rejection, rejection, then to have someone ask you to think about job training? Or even showing up at your kid’s parent-teacher conference? Poverty just taxes your mind. It captures your mind.
That’s so crucial to our policy debate, because many times we have the causality backwards. Folks will say, If you want to get out of poverty, get a better job and make better decisions. But the evidence is that once we have a floor under people, that’s when they can start self-actuating. I love the health research about what happens when states raise the minimum wage. People stop smoking. Their babies are healthier at birth. Child-neglect charges go down. All these massive prosocial events.
The theory behind that: When you’re like Arlene—rejection, rejection, rejection, eviction, rejection, where are my kids going to sleep at night?—the willpower you might have to stop smoking is diminished. This is crucial to understanding the lived experience of poverty.