“When a person lives in poverty, a growing body of research suggests the limbic system is constantly sending fear and stress messages to the prefrontal cortex, which overloads its ability to solve problems, set goals, and complete tasks in the most efficient ways.
“This happens to everyone at some point, regardless of social class. The overload can be prompted by any number of things, including an overly stressful day at work or a family emergency. People in poverty, however, have the added burden of ever-present stress. They are constantly struggling to make ends meet and often bracing themselves against class bias that adds extra strain or even trauma to their daily lives.” – Tara García Mathewson, excerpt from “How Poverty Changes the Brain,” The Atlantic, 4/19/17
With due respect to Ms. Mathewson, the above findings are not news to anyone who has ever lived from paycheck to paycheck, and that’s currently about 40% of the U.S. population. For those who don’t make a living wage, who have to work multiple jobs to be able to eat and to live indoors, and who still sometimes come up short, those “new” findings could easily bring a snort of scornful laughter.
Yes, indeed, having no money is a source of constant stress. Certainly, one’s daily existence is fearful, when security is an unachievable dream. And obviously, when one makes decisions from a place of fear, one may not always see all the alternatives and may not necessarily think logically. A constant struggle to survive tends to obscure nuances. People tend to draw straight lines to the goal of putting food on the table; if they are consumed with that effort, they won’t necessarily take time to consider alternate methods. If one is running from a lion and is presented with three different paths, one is not going to call a halt to debate the pros and cons of each option.
The above-referenced article goes on to say that, when poor people are given a boost, are presented with strategies to improve their situations, they make better decisions and embrace more effective means to their ends. In essence, they can learn to overcome or re-wire the limbic system’s stress messages. Who’d a thunk it?
So….what? Where does this extensive, time-consuming, and undoubtedly expensive research get us? A former boss used to say, “I don’t hire consultants, because all they do is look at my watch and tell me what time it is.” These findings on poverty are like that; any person with an average IQ would be able to state that poverty creates fear and stress, with appropriate reactions and thought processes. But now that we “officially” know these things, and the findings have been published in a reputable journal, then quoted at length and re-posted elsewhere, what do we do about the conclusions? Discussing the problems at an academic remove is a far cry from alleviating the conditions that cause poverty and its resulting mental and emotional havoc.
I would suggest that the scholars who completed this research next be tasked with developing ways to help their subjects. Become advocates for a living wage, affordable housing, healthcare for all, job training. Not giveaways, but ladders for those fearful, stressed, at-the-end-of-their-ropes people to climb out of the holes they’re in. That would be a fitting conclusion to the poverty studies.