Poverty Brain Drain

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In American society, we have certain negative associations linked with our poorest citizens. A few sentiments that I’ve heard people say out loud:

  • “If they try harder, they can pull themselves up by their bootstraps”
  • “No one deserves to live off of welfare”
  • “If I could get out of my bad situation, they can too.”

Sendhil Mullainathan of Harvard University explains that there is a blame-the-victim mentality, where many Americans believe that poor people continue to be poor because they are lazy, unmotivated or just not that sharp.

In reality, just the opposite is true – poverty saps brainpower.  Mullainathan co-authored a study that was recently published in the journal Science proving this point through a series of IQ comparisons between rich and poor people in several countries.

One of the most interesting tests was conducted among sugar cane farmers in India, who were surveyed one month before harvest time when they had limited finances, and then again after the harvest when they had an influx of cash. When the farmers were struggling financially, they scored a substantial 9 points lower on their IQ tests.

The explanation for this poverty brain drain is actually quite logical. When an individual is consumed by the need to provide for basic needs like food, shelter and medicine, they have very little attention to devote to secondary issues and dilemmas that arise in their life.

How do service providers and advocates take the information in this study and put it into practice? Some ideas that come to mind are:

  • Services that seek to help raise people out of poverty need easy-to-navigate intake systems. Government assistance programs should ditch the infamously tedious paperwork and develop verbal, pictorial or shortened intake forms that accomplish the same purpose.
  • Rather than silo-ing many different services for our nation’s poorest citizens, integrated services can reduce confusion and are easier to navigate.
  • Try to schedule situations where thoughtfulness is critical – for example, job interviews – for the day after a paycheck or subsidy comes in. According to this study, IQ is boosted during windows where social and financial security are more assured.

What else can we do to operationalize the information in this study? Comment below with your ideas.


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I have extensive experience coordinating communications and outreach initiatives focused on health and social issues. In my current position as Project Specialist, I provide communications technical assistance to regional and federal efforts within the National Partnership for Action initiative, with support from the Office of Minority Health. I am a former Peace Corps volunteer who worked on health and social affairs projects in the Federated States of Micronesia. Read more.