The Poor Are Neither Corruptible Nor Ill-Disciplined

To add further insult to the many injuries of poverty, those struggling to get by often face the heavy stigma of being perceived as lazy, irresponsible, and even immoral. Being poor is a less a product of bad circumstances and environmental factors, and more the result of stupidity, ill-discipline, and personal failing.

But as the New Republic reports, various studies are finding that the very nature of poverty makes seemingly irrational decisions perfectly reasonable.

The very definition of self-control is choosing behaviors that favor long-term outcomes over short-term rewards, but poverty can force people to live in a permanent now. Worrying about tomorrow can be a luxury if you don’t know how you’ll survive today.

Research supports this idea by showing that poor people understandably have an increased focus on the present. People who are among the poorest one-fifth of Americans tend to spend their money on immediate needs such as food, utilities and housing, all of which have gotten more expensive. In this situation, the traditional definition of self-control doesn’t make a lot of sense.

Working toward future rewards also requires trust that those rewards will be waiting for you when you get there. To shed light on this we can look at the the classic experiment about self-control–the “marshmallow game”. Researchers use this experiment to measure how well children can delay gratification. They put one marshmallow on a table and tell a child that she can eat the marshmallow in front of her, or wait a while and the experimenter will bring her two marshmallows.

It turns out that children don’t wait as long for a promised larger reward if they first learned that the experimenter was unreliable compared to other children who played with a reliable experimenter. And, of course, instability and unpredicability are hallmarks of life in poverty.

People who grow up in poverty quickly learn that it doesn’t pay off to save for an uncertain future if the reward they are waiting for sometimes isn’t there after the wait.

Indeed, if you don’t see a future, why bother saving or investing what little income you could spare, if any. The harsh and uncompromising demands of poverty make it so that short-term considerations are practically all that matter.

In our society, hardly anything is more adverse to survival than poverty. It would be foolish to spend precious mental resources thinking about solving a problem that won’t occur for a month when you can’t afford dinner tonight. A series of studies in 2013 on scarcity among people in the lab and farmers in the real world found that being deprived of money caused the equivalent of a 13-point drop in IQ. That kind of a handicap will make it hard for anyone to engage in the high-level thinking required for self-control.

Like any other kind of thinking, self-control can be taught. Children do better at self-control (and in school) when their parents teach them to solve problems independently and to participate in family decisions. But that kind of involved parenting takes time, and financially poor parents are often “time-poor”, too.

Family factors, like nurturing and stimulation, are directly linked to mental development and can be limited by time poverty. And parents living in poor, dangerous neighborhoods don’t give their children as much autonomy as parents who live in less dangerous neighborhoods. This doesn’t mean that poor working parents aren’t choosing to teach their kids self-control. It means they may be prevented from teaching self-control to their children.

Needless to say, poverty creates dire conditions for impressionable and developing minds. Poverty’s capacity to embed itself into the minds of young people is perhaps what is most pernicious, as perpetuates the psychological and physical consequences for generations.

A child born in the bottom fifth of the income distribution has less than a one-in-10 chance of moving to the top fifth, and even the brightest poor children are still less likely to complete college than average wealthy children. Evidence supports the commonsense conclusion that children in poverty have little reason to have high self-efficacy about self-control based on observing those around them.

Working out of poverty is an uphill struggle. The extra work required of people at the bottom to move up takes its toll on health. Poor children who succeed in school and life, particularly members of minority groups, often have worse health than those who fail, showing at least a 20 percent increase in a biological measure of heart disease risk.

A recent study found that adolescents from poor backgrounds with higher self-control did better psychologically but actually aged faster at the molecular level than those with lower self-control. Self-control and achievement require poor people to overcome a number of structural barriers and obstacles. This is stressful, and stress takes a toll on health. Navigating this difficult terrain causes wear and tear on key parts of the body such as the immune system and ultimately deteriorates health.

With all this mind, the article rightly points out the need to change how we frame the issue of self-discipline in the context of poverty.

We tend to think that focusing on long-term goals is always a good thing and satisfying short-term needs is always a bad thing; we say that “self-control failure” is equivalent to focusing on the near term. This definition works well for people who have the luxury of time and money to meet their basic needs and have resources left over to plan for the future. But self-control as currently defined might not even apply to people living in the permanent now.

Meanwhile, an article in the New York Times tackles the equally pervasive myth that the poor, being so weak-willed and negligent, are susceptible to further laziness and degradation when given assistance. So not only do the poor face ostracization and shame for their condition, but they are deprived of any help for reasons of weak character.

Abhijit Banerjee, a director of the Poverty Action Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, released a paper with three colleagues last week that carefully assessed the effects of seven cash-transfer programs in Mexico, Morocco, Honduras, Nicaragua, the Philippines and Indonesia. It found “no systematic evidence that cash transfer programs discourage work”.

A World Bank report from 2014 examined cash assistance programs in Africa, Asia and Latin America and found, contrary to popular stereotype, the money was not typically squandered on things like alcohol and tobacco.

So across widely distinct cultures and societies, handouts generally have no ill effect on work ethic or financial responsibility. Nevertheless, the myth of the corruptible poor remains widespread, if not intensifying. The culprit?

Professor Banerjee suggests the spread of welfare aversion around the world might be an American confection. “Many governments have economic advisers with degrees from the United States who share the same ideology”, he said. “Ideology is much more pervasive than the facts”.

Some would argue that the U.S. is a different story, because we host certain ethnic, social, and cultural groups that are more prone to laziness than other societies. But decades of evidence from domestic welfare programs do not justify this hypothesis.

Already in 1995, an analysis of rates of birth to unwed mothers by Hilary Hoynes of the University of California, Berkeley, found that welfare payments did not increase single motherhood. And the experience over the next 20 years suggested that ending welfare did not reduce it.

The charge that welfare will become a way of life reproducing itself down the generations is also dubious. Before welfare reform in 1996, some four in 10 Americans on welfare were on it for only one or two years. Only about a third were on it for five years or more.

And what about jobs? There is little doubt that welfare can discourage employment, particularly when recipients lose benefits quickly as their earnings from work rise.

Still, the effects are muted. For instance, in 1983 Robert Moffitt, then at Rutgers University, estimated that welfare reduced work by some four hours a week out of a total of 25.

“There is some disincentive effect consistent with theory, but the economic magnitude is not large”, said James P. Ziliak, head of the Center for Poverty Research at the University of Kentucky. “Oftentimes these disincentive effects are overstated in the policy discourse”.

Yet still these negative impressions of the poor — and the subsequent disapproval and gutting of aid — persists to punishing effect. Even when economic circumstances plummeted and people found themselves unemployed and financially unstable through no fault of their own, this already-baseless line of thinking persisted.

When the Great Recession struck, many of the poorest Americans found there was no safety net for them. “Extreme poverty was more affected by the shock to the labor market than in prior experience”, said Professor Hoynes at Berkeley.

Why is this debate still relevant today? The evidence has not caught up with the popular belief that welfare reform was a huge success.

The old welfare strategy … blamed for so many social ills died long ago. Its replacement is tiny by comparison, providing cash to only about a quarter of poor families and typically only enough to take them a quarter of the way out of poverty.

As long as we fail to accept the external and structural causes of poverty, in favor of blaming and shaming the poor themselves, the scourge of poverty, and its subsequent sociopolitical consequences, will continue for generations, squandering millions of lives in the process.

What are your thoughts?

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