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Why the Poor Remain Poor

A follow-up to "How Being Poor Makes You Poor."
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(Photo: Dooder/Shutterstock)

(Photo: Dooder/Shutterstock)

In April 1995, a poll organized by NBC News and the Wall Street Journal revealed that 60 percent of Americans believed the biggest cause of poverty was "people not doing enough." Only 30 percent blamed circumstances beyond one's control, while the rest thought it was either a combination of both or weren't sure.

Today, however, the same survey shows a nation divided nearly in half: 44 percent ascribe a life of financial struggle to laziness; 46 percent point to external factors.

Life isn't so simple, though. Splitting the source of indigence into either one of two camps—poor because not enough effort; poor because not enough opportunity—may help facilitate conversation on the issue, but it's also somewhat hurtful. This framing tends to turn the destitute into caricatures—either sinners who deserve their damnation or saints denied their salvation. Whatever they are, they're no longer complicated creatures capable of contradiction. They're no longer human.

Who can hope to do well on a mid-term exam without the perseverance it takes to study beforehand?

According to a new study published online by the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, people raised in poor households are, as adults, more likely than those raised in affluent households to make impulsive decisions that forfeit future gains when confronted with economic uncertainty. Exposure to instability, it seems, not only diminishes the former group's sense of control, it also hinders their ability to finish challenging tasks. In one experiment, researchers found that individuals with poor childhoods gave up trying to solve a difficult puzzle over 25 percent earlier than those with wealthy upbringings.

"They don't think they're capable of mastering their environment," says lead author Chiraag Mittal, a doctoral student in Marketing at the University of Minnesota. "People from different backgrounds can perceive the same cues, but then different psychological mechanisms get activated, which leads to different behaviors."

While the researchers go on to state that sometimes it's beneficial to act on impulse, and, since time and energy are limited resources, sometimes it's wiser to surrender when challenged than to endure, the downsides to these so-called psychological mechanisms are everywhere. Who, for example, can save enough to buy a much-needed car when each paycheck gets spent on shoes, alcohol, and other forms of immediate gratification? Who can hope to do well on a mid-term exam without the perseverance it takes to study beforehand?

"Regardless of how much money people have now," adds Mittal, referring to the study's adult participants, "these effects are still there."

What this research suggests, then, is that some poor individuals are, in a sense, responsible for their plight. They make bad choices, lack the willpower to get ahead, and so on. But, at the same time, they are not entirely to blame for their lack of tools, either. Childhood experiences have shaped their character and outlook on life, and this happened without their consent.

Last year, I wrote about the findings of a behavioral economist at Harvard and a cognitive psychologist at Princeton who co-authored the book Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much. As I put it then, they argue that "those living paycheck to paycheck aren’t as much in their situation because they’re bad financial planners with a history of self-sabotage, but rather that they’re bad financial planners with a history of self-sabotage because of their situation."

In other words, it's complicated. Mittal's research just makes it appear even more so.