Poor people. Bunch of addicted, lazy, apathetic, poor decision makers with no self-control, right?
The regular rhetoric that poor people have bad self-control (i.e. buying smokes and lotto tickets) and therefore make nearsighted choices to keep them poor (i.e. choosing not invest in Apple stock) has been belied by a new study that states poverty makes it hard for people to care about the future and forces them to live in the present.
The very definition of self-control is choosing behaviours that favour long-term outcomes over short-term rewards, but poverty can force people to live in a permanent now. You don’t need to worry about tomorrow if you starve to death today!
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. Working toward future rewards also requires trust that those rewards will be waiting for you when you get there. But studies show that when a life of poverty has given you no reason to believe that there is a future reward waiting, why bother exercising self-control for something you know your class can’t have? Providing solutions to tangible problems is necessary. Thinking about what kind of house, car and career you’re going to have when you leave college debt-free is so far removed from reality for most people that they choose to relieve their very real hunger pangs rather than daydream of things they will not have.
Furthermore, 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.
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. Not only does systemic poverty’s conditions make it difficult to behave in a way to facilitate achieving future goals they have no reason to believe can be achieved, the ability to move up a class is non-existent. It’s almost as though the system was designed to keep poor people poor and the rich rich. So strange.
As if this wasn’t depressing enough, a recent study found that adolescents from poor families with higher self-control are better psychologically but actually age 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.
Even when a poor person defies convention, is able to exhibit self-control to attain goals they have no reason to believe they can achieve, even in the face of an IQ-handicap because they are poor, pulling themselves out of systemic poverty will ensure an early death. In other words, the system give you two choices: accept being poor and try to survive or go against the odds and die in the process.
While it’s easy to blame being lazy and lacking self-control for the poor’s poverty, these bad habits are bred by systemic poverty itself. The real problem with poor people is that the system has been designed to keep them down. So no more complaining about poor people’s inability to just waltz into luxury.
(h/t: Elliot Berkman)