Don’t Blame the Victim: New Research on the “Chicken and Egg” of Poverty’s Vicious Cycle

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August 30, 2013: BBC News

A new study published in the journal Science yields more evidence against “blaming the victim” when it comes to poverty. Building on prior research that showed correlation between poverty and poor decision-making, the researchers aimed to learn more about cause and effect. What they concluded is that the stress of dealing with poverty occupies so much mental capacity that it impairs cognitive function in other areas. In other words, poverty causes poor decision-making.

The original research was conducted with sugarcane farmers in India, comparing their decision-making ability during different times in the crop cycle when their income varied dramatically. Controlling for such factors as nutrition, health, physical exhaustion and family commitments, the researchers found that mental acuity for a given farmer (as per IQ testing) rose and dropped with his income over the course of the season.

A follow-up study was conducted in the United States with two groups of people, one wealthy and one poor.  Each group was asked easy and difficult hypothetical questions about their personal financial situations. The wealthy and poor performed similarly on the “easy” questions, but with the more difficult questions about their situations, the performance of the poor dropped off markedly.

As Kathleen Vohs, a behavioral scientist at the University of Minnesota notes in prefacing the article, “Many find it puzzling that those in poverty seem to get stuck in that state, even when there are opportunities to improve one’s lot. Simply put, being poor taps out one’s mental reserves. This feature (of making bad decisions under stress) exists in all of us.”

The researchers have concluded that providing greater personal support for the poor in dealing with the tasks and stresses of their daily life is not only compassionate but also an effective strategy to free up mental space for better decision-making. —Kathi Jaworski

  • f nord

    What looks from the outside like “opportunities to improve one’s lot”, often just aren’t.

    Education is fine: if childcare is affordable, if one can pay rent and eat *while* school is happening.

    Many programs are simply not designed to be congruent with the demands of the so-called “target group’s” lived experience.
    And many have disqualifiers built in, e.g. a program is delivered at a location that cannot be reached by public transit.

    The reasearchers clearly don’t get it that what poor people need is *money*. They don’t need “personal support” from someone being paid the money that could better be spent simply alleviating the poverty itself.

    But what on earth would all those people in the poverty industry do if the money went to the poor instead: good grief, they’d be out of work!

  • donna

    This subject enrages me like no other. The above article is written by someone who clearly has never worked with the poor. The poor just might make better financial decisions that the wealthy. It takes genius to live on minimum wage or a part time salary. The stress of being poor is not the problem. Not having enough money is the problem! That is so common sense I don’t see why two studies were required.

    Education is not the answer to the problem. There are people in this world who do not meet the definition of mentally disabled, but they are not college material. Even if they manage to get through college, they will struggle on the fringes of our society. Unfortunately attractiveness, weight, diction and other discriminatory factors prevent people from getting jobs with decent wages. These problems even plague college graduates.

    We need to stop with “it must be something they are doing.” We are not all having the same life experience. To understand poverty we have to see poverty, not from our perspective, but through the eyes of the poor.