Does ‘Wrong Mind-Set’ Lead to Poverty, or Does Poverty Come First?

In How We Behave, The Upshot On
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Poverty, Mr. Carson is saying, is in part a state of mind. But while that idea holds truth, researchers who study poverty say Mr. Carson has greatly confused cause and effect.

Poverty is in some ways a state of mind, their studies show, in that it can cause people to think less clearly, to sleep less well, to contend with distraction and to internalize shame. But it’s the experience of deprivation that leads to the mind-set, researchers say. It’s not the mind-set that leads people into poverty, or that explains why many never escape it.

“There’s definitely evidence that poverty — particularly childhood poverty — does affect things like persistence, your executive functioning, your ability to control attention, to inhibit emotions,” said Gary Evans, a professor of human ecology at Cornell. “He’s correct in identifying that there’s this link. But I think he’s got the relationships backwards.”

. . .

Some of Mr. Shafir’s work, described with the Harvard economist Sendhil Mullainathan in the book “Scarcity,” suggests that poverty consumes much of the cognitive bandwidth we need to be successful at other life tasks. In experiments, they’ve shown that people who are asked to think about financial problems — or who experience financial strain — perform worse on spatial and reasoning tasks. Poverty, they argue, exacts a mental tax akin to lowering a person’s IQ.

And those mental costs have a way of reinforcing poverty. If you’re worried about eviction, you may forget a doctor’s appointment; if you’re preoccupied with how to pay the bills, you may be worse at making other decisions. That is a very different thing, however, from saying that people who don’t have the right attitude remain poor.

Mr. Evans’s work suggests that the kind of chronic stress experienced by many children growing up in poverty may damage the parts of the brain where researchers believe functions like working memory reside.

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