by Rosemary Gray-Snelgrove
First…The Quebec Charter
I have been stymied about where to go with the Quebec Charter issue. There were so many thoughtful responses. And some encouragement to take my arguments further.
But seeing what and from where other arguments came – Wow! They’re all over the place! Not all alike but when Jacques Parizeau and Lucien Bouchard speak in defense of a “non-discriminatory culture”, I figure I can rest assured that a critical mass of good souls and sound thinkers has emerged. Quebec will likely take care of itself quite well. My small voice can retire for now – with vigilance a requirement.
I thank those of you who took the time and effort to Comment . This readership is alive and kicking! A grand thing.
Excitement on the Science Front
I’m eager to move on to a very affirmative study that was reported in the Toronto Star In late August 1.
It has given us some tools to address the problem of the apparent difficulty in helping move people forward out of the condition of poverty that seems to keep them entrapped. It provides information to help answer the question that is often posed about peoples living in poverty: “Why don’t they just get off the couch and get a job?”; “Why do the poor seem to make so many bad decisions and keep getting in more trouble?”.
The study, scientifically studied and reviewed, has found that “…poverty itself reduces cognitive capacity. We suggest that this is because poverty-related concerns consume mental resources, leaving less for other tasks.”2
In other words, poverty and poor performance are not just correlated. They don’t just happen to occur in tandem. Cause and effect are at work. Poverty causes the poor performance.
A Reasonable Theory Held By Many
For decades, social scientists, social workers, and educational theorists have embraced the idea that people at the lowest end of the socio-economic scale have more difficulty within the educational system, and finding a place in the work force. It’s a sensible observation from many people working for decades among people of differing socio-economic status. Financial and social deprivation usually go together. They correlate, and children within deprived families have, accordingly, a harder time learning and coping.
My own observations have settled around the notion of the trauma of poverty. When you haven’t a secure home, or enough food, and you’re cold in winter, blocks develop in the mind as you deal with the preoccupation of trying to become more safe. You’re more inclined to shoot yourself in the foot than to do something sensible when you are faced with a choice or an opportunity that might get you to a better place. But this has been mere speculation from ‘the field’ – from people who have worked among the poor.
There may already be hard science to back up such observations, but I have not done a literature review, and have to celebrate a study that says it loud and proud: “Being poor can impair cognitive functioning, which hinders individual ability to make good decisions and can cause further poverty”3
Hooray, Science Comes on Board
Scientists look at a piece of what can be seen (observation), read all about what has been previously determined about it (the scientific literature), and on the basis of history and hunches, come up with various hypotheses (well-considered ideas) about what else might be an explanation for the things seen (the phenomena).
The science guys then figure out what might be a way to test their ideas. They devise experiments, often looking at two groups of people, some of whom have certain things happen to them, and another group who has different things or nothing at all happen to them. They find ways to measure it all so that it is totally fair. A result has to be something that can be re-tested (replicated) repeatedly – so it’s not just a one-off that enters the scientific literature. The results are presented for peer review – people who are experts in the field review the findings, the experiments, and criticize it like crazy, to ensure that the results hold up.
I’m pointing out the difference between science and smart observation even to readers who are very aware of how it all works – because without scientific data we’ve been without solid tools in working among people who are poor. Interpersonal compassion and insight and prayer have carried the burden – brilliant projects do pop up – but I think nothing will change until this society and its institutions stop getting away with blaming the poor for their plight. Poverty itself reduces cognitive capacity. 4
“Dealing with poverty takes up so much mental energy that the poor have less brain power for making decisions and taking steps to overcome their financial difficulties”. 5
Hence we must:
Stop blaming the poor
Recognize that accepting growing poverty means accepting our part in reducing the brain power of our poor.
Name this false thinking that says we can’t afford to reduce poverty. Point out the costs of maintaining conditions that reduce the amount of collective brain-power we’ve got to work with.
Support housing and food policies that help children to experience less strain on their thinking capacity.
More Information Needed
The study doesn’t include measuring the chemistry and electricity in the brain that is affected by being poor, BUT it suggests further hypotheses about what can be further studied, to suggest ways that the brain’s capacity can be harnessed by a person, and not hi-jacked by her circumstances.
1 August 29th, 2013, “Poverty Lowers Brain Power”, Canadian Press, written by Sheryl Ubelacker) published in the Toronto Star, August 29, 2013..
2. Poverty Impedes Cognitive Function by Anandi Mani, Sendhil Mullainathan, Eldar Shafir, Jiaying Zhao, in the Journal Science, 30 August 2013, Vol. 341 no. 6149 pp. 976-980
3. See (1) above
4. From the Abstract of the study in (2) above. “The poor often behave in less capable ways, which can further perpetuate poverty. We hypothesize that poverty directly impedes cognitive function and present two studies that test this hypothesis. First, we experimentally induced thoughts about finances and found that this reduces cognitive performance among poor but not in well-off participants. Second, we examined the cognitive function of farmers over the planting cycle. We found that the same farmer shows diminished cognitive performance before harvest, when poor, as compared with after harvest, when rich. This cannot be explained by differences in time available, nutrition, or work effort. 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. We suggest that this is because poverty-related concerns consume mental resources, leaving less for other tasks. These data provide a previously unexamined perspective and help explain a spectrum of behaviors among the poor. We discuss some implications for poverty policy.”
5. See (1) above.