Poverty affects poor students’ minds

Last August as the new school year was getting underway, this headline in the Washington Post’s Wonkblog caught my eye: “What your 1st-grade life says about the rest of it.”

Written by Emily Badger, the article recounts how researchers Karl Alexander and Doris Entwisle of Johns Hopkins tracked 790 children in Baltimore from first grade in 1982 until they were 28 years old. What they discovered is no surprise – that how we start out in life is how we will most likely be as adults. In other words, children from financially stable families grow up to be financially stable adults. Being born into a poor family almost guarantees that a child will end up in poverty as an adult.

The statistics concerning the impoverished children in Baltimore were dire. Fewer than half of the group graduated from high school on time. By age 18, 40 percent of the African-American girls from low-income families had children. Ten percent of the black males were incarcerated. Twenty-six of the students died. By the end of the study, only 33 of 314 low-income students had moved into the middle class, and only 4 percent had earned college degrees.

Is this, as some commentators assert, because poor people lack the virtues and personality traits that lead to success – traits such as perseverance or grit, the current buzzword in character education?

In the May-June Harvard Magazine, Cara Feinberg interviews behavioral economist Sendhil Mullainathan about his research on the effects of scarcity on people’s actions.

“Scarcity steals mental capacity wherever it occurs – from the hungry, to the lonely, to the time-strapped, to the poor. That’s a phenomenon well-documented by psychologists,” Feinberg writes. “If the mind is focused on one thing, other abilities and skills – attention, self-control, and long-term planning – often suffer. Qualities often considered part of one’s basic character – impulsive behavior, poor performance in school, poor financial decisions – may in fact be a pervasive feeling of scarcity. And when that feeling is constant, as it is for people in poverty, it captures and compromises the mind.”

People living with the stress of scarcity do make the kinds of bad choices the researchers in Baltimore recorded as their child subjects grew into adulthood. But their choices weren’t what made them poor. Instead, being poor leads people to make bad choices. In study after study, Mullainathan and his colleague Eldar Shafir documented significant drops in IQ scores and mental capacity during periods of scarcity.

Mullainathan said, “To put it crudely, poverty – no matter who you are – can make you dumber.”

Last week the Council of Chief State School Officers, in conjunction with Scholastic Inc., released a survey given to the 2015 State Teachers of the Year on issues in public education. The overwhelming number of these top teachers cited family stress, poverty, and learning and psychological problems as the three major impediments to success in school. Children growing up in poverty – more than half the students in America’s public schools – are hit with this triple whammy.

Maine’s Teacher of the Year, Jennifer Dorman, said, “Those three factors in many ways are the white elephant in the living room for us in education. As teachers, we know those factors present huge barriers to our students’ success. Helping students cope with those three factors is probably the most important part of my job. But on a national level, those problems are not being recognized as the primary obstacles.”

By contrast, the issues teachers found least important in students’ success – access to technology and funding for testing and accountability – are too often the primary focus of policymakers. If, as Mullainathan suggests, we have a limited mental “bandwidth” that is being taxed by poverty, then policies that address poverty directly need to be supplemented with ones that recognize the mental toll being poor takes.

For example, renters who are sent postcard reminders are more likely to make their payments on time. Running a staggered schedule for a job-assistance program – so clients who miss a session can easily make it up – improves attendance and compliance.

“Although this type of accommodating approach is often criticized as coddling or paternalistic,” Feinberg writes, “Mullainathan and Shafir argue that it’s just the opposite. This is not a substitute for personal responsibility, the authors claim; rather, ‘fault tolerance’ is a way to ensure that when the poor do take on [responsibility] themselves, they can improve – as many do. It is a way to ensure that small slipups – an inevitable consequence of bandwidth [depletion] – do not undo hard work.”

When we stop blaming the poor for being poor and see poverty as the real culprit, we can increase the kinds of effective supports that help people make positive changes in their lives –and in the futures of their children.

Kay McSpadden teaches English at York Comprehensive High School. Email: kmcspadden@comporium.net.