The science of self-perpetuating poverty

This essay from Christian Cooper in Nautilus is so, so good.  I’m disappointed I’ve only seen it shared by one person.  Really strikes me as a must-read.  Cooper summarizes a lot of the evidence from epigenetics of how poverty literally changes human biology in negative ways, which, of course, make it that much harder to escape from poverty.  In other words, poverty is like a disease.  And, of course, hits upon so many of the myths of the American dream.  Really good stuff.  A bit:

Now, new evidence is emerging suggesting the changes can go even deeper—to how our bodies assemble themselves, shifting the types of cells that they are made from, and maybe even how our genetic code is expressed, playing with it like a Rubik’s cube thrown into a running washing machine. If this science holds up, it means that poverty is more than just a socioeconomic condition. It is a collection of related symptoms that are preventable, treatable—and even inheritable. In other words, the effects of poverty begin to look very much like the symptoms of a disease…

This science challenges us to re-evaluate a cornerstone of American mythology, and of our social policies for the poor: the bootstrap. The story of the self-made, inspirational individual transcending his or her circumstances by sweat and hard work. A pillar of the framework of meritocracy, where rewards are supposedly justly distributed to those who deserve them most.

What kind of a bootstrap or merit-based game can we be left with if poverty cripples the contestants? Especially if it has intergenerational effects? The uglier converse of the bootstrap hypothesis—that those who fail to transcend their circumstances deserve them—makes even less sense in the face of the grim biology of poverty. When the firing gun goes off, the poor are well behind the start line. Despite my success, I certainly was. [emphases mine]

Why do so few make it out of poverty? I can tell you from experience it is not because some have more merit than others. It is because being poor is a high-risk gamble. The asymmetry of outcomes for the poor is so enormous because it is so expensive to be poor. Imagine losing a job because your phone was cut off, or blowing off an exam because you spent the day in the ER dealing with something that preventative care would have avoided completely. Something as simple as that can spark a spiral of adversity almost impossible to recover from. The reality is that when you’re poor, if you make one mistake, you’re done. Everything becomes a sudden-death gamble.

Now imagine that, on top of that, your brain is wired to multiply the subjective experience of stress by 10. The result is a profound focus on short-term thinking. To those outsiders who, by fortune of birth, have never known the calculus of poverty, the poor seem to make sub-optimal decisions time and time again. But the choices made by the poor are supremely rational choices under the circumstances. Pondering optimal, long-term decisions is a liability when you have 48 hours of food left. Stress takes on a whole new meaning—and try as you might, it’s hard to shake.

The standard American myth of meritocracy misinterprets personal narratives like mine. The accumulated social capital of American institutions—stable transfer of power, rule of law, and entrepreneurship—certainly create economic miracles every day. But these institutions are far more suited to exponentially growing capital where it already exists, rather than creating new capital where society needs it.

Cooper concludes by briefly discussing at least some of the policy implications:

We should leverage the lessons of the science of poverty rather than ignore them. Poverty alleviation programs like conditional cash transfers, for example, reward parents or caregivers with direct payment for taking actions, like ensuring school attendance or arranging for preventative care. They encourage stress alleviation and long-term planning that is far upstream of doing well on an exam—they provide exactly the kind of certainty that the poverty-stricken brain needs. In a paper released in June of 2009, Lia Fernald and Megan Gunnar showed that such programs lowered salivary cortisol levels and reduced lifetime risk for a range of mental and physical disorders.12 There should be more programs like these: For example so-called whole-child policies, which focus on the long-term development of children starting from birth while reducing uncertainty during the first three years of childhood development.

Now, now all of what Cooper relies upon is definitive science at this point, but it is highly suggestive.  And any open-minded, empirically-minded person should be well aware of the psychological and sociological (if not biological) ways in which poverty is clearly self-perpetuating through generations.  It is high past time to take these insights seriously and think more deeply and comprehensively about what public policies can best reduce and mitigate poverty.

One thing I can absolutely tell you– demanding that the poor simply pull themselves up by their bootstraps and pulling away needed social welfare programs as “a hammock” are sure as hell not part of the solution.

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About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State http://faculty.chass.ncsu.edu/shgreene

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