“Why Don’t Poor People Just Work Harder?” Poverty, Stress, and Getting Stuck in Reverse

Many people who have never experienced real poverty have a hard time understanding why so many poor people seem to stay that way. The solutions seem so obvious. Why don’t poor people just work harder? Get better jobs? Save money? Make sure their kids get a good education? What are the rest of us supposed to do for people who seem unwilling to do more for themselves?

These questions suggest that poor people lack something — grit, ambition, common sense. But the focus on character traits obscures the biological processes that often accompany poverty, over which people have little control. The very same part of the brain that is supposed to help us make complex decisions and plan for the future is the one that is most affected by stress — such as the stress that comes with poverty.

“The frontal cortex [of the brain] is what makes you do the harder thing when it’s the right thing to do — long-term planning, gratification postponement, impulse control, emotional regulation,” explains neuroendocrinologist Robert Sapolsky in an interview with Vox.com. But the stress of poverty, he adds, is a “psychological sledgehammer” that pounds away at those capacities.

The part of the brain that is supposed to help us make complex decisions and plan for the future is the one that is most affected by stress, such as the stress that comes with poverty.Click To Tweet

Two hormones, adrenaline and cortisol, are primarily responsible for stress responses. Adrenaline provides a surge of energy to escape an immediate, dire threat, like being attacked or chased. But that rush is brief, lasting at most an hour or so; at that point your body is exhausted, and your adrenaline store is depleted.

Cortisol is different. Your body can keep producing it, if that’s what your environment demands. It delivers energy to your body by breaking down sugars very quickly but inefficiently. It will then resort to breaking down proteins stored in various places in the body, including myelin, which surrounds brain cells and helps them communicate. Cells in the area of the pre-frontal cortex that is responsible for inhibiting counterproductive behavior are especially vulnerable. In other words, prolonged stress literally eats away at our ability to think clearly.

This is part of the reason why admonitions to “work harder” are tone deaf. As Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir explain in their book Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much:

Juggling public transportation, childcare, changing job shifts, caring for family on a limited budget, and navigating public assistance requirements, for instance, requires a high degree of organization, multi-tasking, inhibition, and emotional control. Using so many self-regulation resources to attend to the daily tasks of living leaves fewer resources for other purposes.

Poverty may also lead to ‘tunneling’ — the tendency of people to focus intensively on their most pressing sources of financial stress and short-term needs at the expense of future needs. Tunneling can lead a person to make short-term decisions that alleviate urgent needs but cause greater financial challenges in the long run.

It’s not just poverty, but inequality, that drives stress. In their book The Inner Level: How More Equal Societies Reduce Stress, epidemiologists Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett explain:

“Greater inequality heightens social threat and status anxiety, evoking feelings of shame which feed into our instincts for withdrawal, submission and subordination: when the social pyramid gets higher and steeper and status insecurity increases, there are widespread psychological costs.”

Children are not immune. Indeed, for many, perhaps most children, to grow up poor is to be sentenced to a lifetime of struggle. In 2017, Mother Jones magazine wrote about work by neuroscientists to build a “neurocognitive profile” of socioeconomic status and the developing brain. Reviewing MRI data, they found measurable differences in the sizes of certain areas in the pre-frontal cortexes, and in surface area overall, in children from low- and high-income families.

“And while we don’t yet know whether or how much these brain disparities persist into adulthood,” the article adds, “this research — combined with past work demonstrating that people raised in poverty end up doing worse financially and suffering greater health problems than their more-affluent contemporaries over the course of their lifetimes — suggests they probably have lifelong effects.”

The belief that rewards necessarily follow hard work, that we’re held back only by self-imposed limitations, is deeply embedded in our culture. As a result, proposed remedies to poverty almost always involve opportunity. In its report Pathways to the Middle Class, the Brookings Institute noted, “A far higher proportion [of Americans] is in favor of doing something about ensuring that more people have a shot at climbing the economic ladder than is in favor of reducing poverty or inequality.”

But this is a false choice that leads to ineffective policies. Focusing on access to opportunity, without addressing inequality, is the same as urging the poor to improve their character while ignoring the “psychological sledgehammer” of stress. And until we all acknowledge that, our efforts to help those who are struggling will fall short. It’s telling that the metaphor we most commonly use for overcoming poverty — “pull yourself up by your own bootstraps” — was originally intended as sarcasm because it’s impossible.

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