Photo of the day

Swans were back during my Labor Day weekend trip to Colonial Beach, VA:

It’s hard being poor

I gave a guest talk last week to a group of NCSU undergrads who work extensively with disadvantaged youth.  I ended up talking a lot more psychology and sociology than politics (I like to think of myself as a social scientist who can hit to all fields), especially about bandwidth poverty and ACE scores (Adverse Childhood Experiences).  Looks like I’ve mentioned bandwidth poverty a couple times, but it’s been a while, and there’s some really good links on the matter I haven’t shared.

This Karen Weese summary of the issue is terrific and I now assign it to my public policy classes:

Living in poverty, having so much bandwidth wrapped up in just making it from one day to the next, decreases a person’s — any person’s — cognitive function, making it harder to solve problems, resist impulses, and think long-term. If a well-off professional like Bledsoe were transplanted into a life of poverty tomorrow, he’d lose the same bandwidth too — and his brain function would show it. [emphasis mine]

The context of “scarcity” — as Princeton University professor of psychology and public policy Eldar Shafir and Harvard University economist Sendhil Mullainathan dubbed it in their influential 2013 book Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much — actually changes the way we think. We get tunnel vision, able to focus only on the present problem — the thing we lack, or the thing we need to do right now — in a kind of fire-fighting mode, leaving us with less bandwidth for anything else.

This effect can occur with any key resource — not just scarce money, but also food, and even time. A time-crunched professional feverishly finishing a project will likely fail to eat balanced meals and forget to show up for appointments. A calorie-counting dieter plagued with visions of ice cream will have a harder time concentrating at work or restraining her impatience during the 27th reading of Goodnight Moon. It’s not that they don’t want to — there’s just no room to spare.

Indeed, studies show that subjects perform worse on cognitive tests when they are dieting; Shafir and Mullainathan’s research demonstrates that they’re especially thrown off when the puzzles include words like doughnut and cake. And when the two researchers asked Princeton students to play brain games under time pressure with the opportunity to borrow more time at exorbitant interest rates, the students couldn’t resist borrowing — interest rates notwithstanding — once they started running low.

As for the effects of financial scarcity, when Shafir and Mullainathan tested the cognitive function of sugarcane farmers in India — first right after harvest time when they were flush with cash, and then again right before harvest, when they were barely scraping by — they performed like different people, losing nearly 10 IQ points and faltering in other measures of higher-level thinking. Like computers trying to download too many files at once, they simply had less mental bandwidth available to devote to the test.

And Vox’s Alvin Chang— master of the cartoon explainers– has a terrific piece on how incredibly difficult it is just living in a poor neighborhood.  And, importantly talks about the fact that you can’t talk about this issue without also talking about race.

As for the ACE score and how your adverse childhood experiences have a dramatically negative impact on your health and educational outcomes, a nice feature from NPR, including your chance to see how you score.  Here’s the nice infographic that goes with it:

According to the Adverse Childhood Experiences study, the rougher your childhood, the higher your score is likely to be and the higher your risk for various health problems later.

Behaviors and physical and mental health conditions

Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Credit: Robert Wood Johnson Foundation

As for me, have an ACE score of 1 due to my parents divorce.  And, honestly, I had a much more emotionally healthy family than many I know who’s parents were married.  And, to bring this back to politics– I’m not interested in taking credit for my successes, but rather recognize how extraordinarily lucky I am to have come from a relatively wealthy, emotionally healthy background.  That makes a huge difference and it is both cruel and ignorant to pretend otherwise in our policy choices.

2018– revenge of the college grads?

An ongoing problem for Democrats in recent election cycles is that as the Democratic coalition has become ever more based on young and minority voters, they’ve had a really tough time in Congressional-year elections.  Turnout drops for all demographic groups in non-presidential years, but it drops disproportionate among young and minority voters in off year elections.  Pretty hard, therefore to make much inroads in Congress.  Except for the occasional disastrous president (see GWB, 2006).  That said, the party out of power almost always picks up seats in off-year elections.  Especially with an unpopular president.  And this time around, Democrats may have one demographic shift working in their advantage– the growing shift of college grads towards the Democratic party (thanks, Trump!) and the growing portion of the electorate that is college grads.  538‘s Dave Wasserman explains:

Midterm elections are almost always a referendum on the party in the White House. And although college-educated whites narrowly supported Trump over Hillary Clinton last November, there’s evidence they are now among his most intense detractors.

The most recent NBC/Wall Street Journal national survey found that whites with a college degree disapproved of Trump’s job performance 61 percent to 37 percent, with 51 percent strongly disapproving — a remarkable level of intensity for a group that he carried just 10 months ago. By comparison, non-college whites approved of Trump 56 percent to 38 percent, with only 27 percent disapproving strongly.

If numbers like these hold through November 2018, college-educated voters could swing hard toward Democrats at a time they represent a disproportionate share of the electorate… [emphasis mine]

Still, Democrats’ “diploma bonus” is likely to be partially offset by a transition to an older and whiter electorate in the midterms.

Of the two effects, the age dynamic has given them more trouble in the past. But Democrats can take solace that the partisan age gap may not be quite as wide as it was last decade: In 2016, exit polls found Trump performed 16 points better with voters 65 and older than he did among voters 18 to 29; back in 2008, Obama performed 21 points better with voters 18 to 29 than he did with voters 65 and over…

At the end of the day, however, the midterm education gap is more dangerous for Republicans because its impact could be so widespread. In 2016, Trump’s white working class “true believers” showed up, well, for Trump. He won’t be on the ballot in 2018. And the challenge of motivating these voters — who are typically less likely to vote in midterms anyway — could be compounded by Trump’s perpetual bashing of congressional Republicans who are on the ballot.

That could allow college graduates to power Democrats to big gains — at least until 2020, when the electorate’s structure shifts again.

Now, don’t go betting the house on Democrats taking over the House in 2018, but, more than a year out, there’s a lot of encouraging signs.  And then, so long as Democrats don’t overplay their hand (it will be hard not to), it is game over for the Trump presidency as he is so corrupt in so many Congressionally-investigative ways (largely, enriching himself and family off the taxpayers) that have nothing to do with partisan politics.

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