Study Suggests That Poor People Aren’t Innately Dumb

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broken piggy bankPoor parents are easily some of the most vilified individuals this side of the blogosphere. Something about not being flushed with cash to dote on your little Quinoa automatically makes you the absolute dumbest, lazy, inept parent who, according to many comment threads I’ve read over the years, deserves to have your children taken away — like foster care is some magical, plush dreamland where kiddies are welcomed inside with hugs and freshly baked cookies. But a study on the vicious cycle of poverty demonstrates that being under financial duress actually just makes you think differently. And not all that well.

Msnbc reports that “being poor affects your ability to think” and that being under “severe” financial stress doesn’t give you the capability — or “mental bandwidth” — to make stellar choices. Apparently be strapped for cash takes up so much mental energy that poor decisions follow:

“When you are very, very focused on what you don’t have enough of, you do all you can do to get more of it, at the expense of other stuff,” says Eldar Shafir of Princeton University, who worked on the study published in the journal Science.

When people don’t have enough money they’re so focused on ways to get more that they don’t make good choices, a new study has found.

Poorer people make bad decisions, such as using pawn shops to raise cash, according to the study.

Researchers reportedly conducted two experiments, one of which was based in a New Jersey shopping mall:

With the 101 shoppers, they gave them a series of problem-solving tests – for example, asking how they would handle a 5 percent salary cut, a 15 percent salary cut; or an emergency car repair costing either $150 or $1,500. With that in their heads, they were also given basic IQ and computer-based tests of focus and concentration.

The shoppers made on average $70,000 a year, but some made as little as $20,000. The poorer and richer shoppers did equally well when they had a minor financial issue at the back of their minds. But when the car repair was more expensive, or when the salary cut was higher, the lower-earners did significantly worse on the later tests than the higher-earners.

Shafir points out that it’s the “distraction” of that immense cost that accounts for some participants suddenly performing poorly:

“The test is the same both times. All that changes is how much it takes to fix your car. It’s being distracted by fixing your car that all of a sudden takes away your attention. You are just as smart when the car is cheap and you are less smart on the exact same question when fixing the car is expensive.”

The second experiment took place in rural India with sugarcane farmers. Said farmers are only paid once a year for their labor, just after the harvest. The last month before the harvest, the farmers are usually pretty broke. The researchers’ findings turned out to be pretty similar to what they discovered in New Jersey:

The farmers made more poor decisions in real life when faced with a financial crunch – they pawned more items – a truly awful financial decision – and were twice as likely to borrow money.

“This cannot be explained by differences in time available, nutrition, or work effort,” Shafir’s team wrote in their report.

“Nor can it be explained with stress: Although farmers do show more stress before harvest, that does not account for diminished cognitive performance. Instead, it appears that poverty itself reduces cognitive capacity.”

There’s no question that many poor people make poor decisions, the researchers add.

Poverty may be more dangerous to children than crack, but the impacts on grownups aren’t exactly healthful either.

(photo: wavebreakmedia / Shutterstock)