Escape Poverty? Only If Your Brain Power Isn’t Compromised

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.” 

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 poverty3

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

Moral Implications

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.



Filed under A Bigger Circle, Rosemary's entries

9 responses to “Escape Poverty? Only If Your Brain Power Isn’t Compromised

  1. Intriguing research, Rosemary. Thanks for bringing it to our attention.

  2. Hi, Rosemary

    My first thought was that I’ve never known the kind of poverty that you are talking about. But I have experienced poverty in a way — at least the FEELING of it. My father died when I was not quite 6, leaving my mother with 3 children, aged 8, 6 and 5. And I’m guessing with very little money or prospects of money now that his salary was no more.

    Our way out? My mother got herself back into the marriage market, and in about 3 years, had herself a second husband more manager than the first. Our cousins considered us rich.

    Was I cognitively diminished during these 3 years of feeling poor? I don’t recall us being given grades in Grades 1-3, but about halfway through Grade 3, I was told that I was being advanced into Grade 4 — the first I realized I was doing well.

    Something else. It was the poor in the time of Jesus who were by far the best at recognizing Who He was. He had many friends among the poor, and hardly any among the power people at the top who were anything but starving. If the poor and the empowered were cognitive about different things, it was the poor who got right the most important things.

    One more thought — isn’t there a quotation to the effect that “he is richest who can get along with the least”?

  3. Truly appreciate and have been duly instructed by your article Rosemary! Many thanks.
    Particularly love your 4 ‘hence we must’s.

    Looking at the issue the other way – i.e. what happens to those of us who aren’t poor when we are constantly side-stepping the issue of poverty rather than tackling it head on, I am reminded of something Pope Francis said recently:

    “The culture of comfort, which makes us think only of ourselves, makes us insensitive to the cries of other people, makes us live in soap bubbles which, however lovely, are insubstantial; they offer a fleeting and empty illusion which results in indifference to others; indeed, it even leads to the globalization of indifference. In this globalized world, we have fallen into globalized indifference. We have become used to the suffering of others: it doesn’t affect me; it doesn’t concern me; it’s none of my business!”

    The irony here is too rich to miss. The longer we don’t care about the cognitive impairments suffered by those in poverty, the thicker the walls of our indifference, the greater the loss of our capacity to be human and the alarming increase of superficiality in our lives. Instead of gaining substance, we become more like shadows with a diminishing ability to take hold of anything real.

    Poor people are our way out of our stifling culture of comfort. They are our means of regaining substance, humanity and globalized passion. As much as they may need us to improve their thinking capacity, we need them to rescue our capacity to feel for ‘first things’ – love of neighbour and love for God.

  4. Nice piece Rosie. Unfortunately our present government is trying to muzzle its scientists rather than listen to them. Especially where it comes to crime, illegal drugs or the environment.

    As Wendell Berry said in the interview I sent you earlier today (http:/, the aim of capitalism is to replace workers with machines. So then we have unemployment and poverty and we blame the victim.

    In Newark NJ the unemployment rate among black youth is 50% No wonder they turn to selling drugs to make a decent living when there are few other options.

    Keep writing about these important issues my friend.


  5. Diana Buck

    Just to add, poverty (relative to the number of relatives) was the bain of my childhood.
    I didn’t see a dentist til I was married and lost my first adult tooth at 20. Since then I have had and am still having astronomical costs related to that failure.
    You don’t think about your teeth til they hurt and the other day one broke. I ended up at a ‘low end’ dentist. The place was grotty but I could just about afford it. The dentist said, rather pointlessly I thought, Oh, you’ve had a lot of fillings and crowns and you are missy 6 teeth’. Did he really think I didn’t know? But as a poor pensioner I kept my mouth shut (after he has his look) and just said ‘bad bones’ I felt a frisson of anger and shame. That is how poverty feels in later life. I lived like I was middle class but am and always have been below the poverty line.
    If everyone had dental care the costs endured throughout my whole life and the shame and pain would not occur.
    And that’s just one example.

  6. The scientists as usual act like scientitsts. Here’s my opinion of poverty equalling poverty.
    If you are poor you don’t have the idea or the access to that which can get you out. You are in a wood and all you see are trees so “treeness” is all you can see or be. I have taken many people to the ballet who have never seen a ballet. Afterwards they say, ‘wow, I didn’t know that existed’. It is my belief that if the poor were given access to the idea of something else something better they could at least reach for it if they want to.
    Some of us were born to look and see what’s out there, and some must be shown.
    Show them.
    Or as Anne Isabella Thackeray Ritchie said, ‘give a man a fish and you feed him for a day, teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime’. They just don’t know how to ‘fish’ for opportunity. Show them. Make them the ‘gift’ of choice, then let them make it for themselves. Cause if you don’t see it, you can’t do it.
    Just one woman’s opinion based on personal experience.
    Diana Buck

  7. Arel Agnew

    thanks for doing this Rosemary

  8. Karen

    Enjoyed this article and really – it is time we stopped blaming the poor!!!
    Poverty is also a fine ground for building character and resourcefulness and generosity. Jesus understood and taught this and the Bible as a whole teaches in so many scriptures about the value of poverty.

  9. I wonder if it’s too late to make a comment on your latest blog? I did enjoy it. I think it’s important to remind ourselves of the realities of poor people – especially since the numbers of really poor people are growing in our wealthy country. And our social safety net has more holes in it than net it seems.

    As for me and my advocacy activities, I love this. Yes, it’s hard to get out of bed sometimes, but I can do it, no matter how tired, for certain groups and activities. Last Thursday was a really invigorating day – after being at the corner of Bay and Bloor for the lunch hour, I went over the Queen’s Park to support the “Stitching Our Social Safety Net” event. Lots of people I know well, work with and the respect is mutual. That is always important.

    Life on a pittance remains a challenge. But there is great joy in my life. First, in my son and daughter. I have a wealth of wonderful friends, a comfortable home, and a faith that is powerful.

    Like any human being, I need affirmation. Thanks.

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