Poverty and the Choices We Make

“Now, we may need to grapple with a new possibility: that poverty doesn’t simply reduce freedom by constraining an individual’s choices, but that it may actually alter the nature of freedom by reducing an individual’s willpower.”

My friend Sam sent me a link for this article on poverty: “Why Can’t the Poor Escape Poverty?” It deals with the will power of the poor. The gist of the article is that if you are a poor person, then you have to exert a good deal of energy on making difficult financial decisions regarding some basic decisions: “whether to pay rent or buy food; to buy medicine or winter clothes; to pay for school materials or loan money to a relative. These choices are weighty, and just thinking about them seems to exact a mental cost.”

Experimentation is showing that if you have to exert mental energy making a difficult decision, then you will be more likely to make a poor decision in the near future because you will not have the mental stamina to keep making good, wise decisions. By contrast, if you are middle or upper class, then you can make basic decisions in your life based simply on what you want: do I want to buy a cup of coffee or not? It’s a simple matter of personal preference at a given moment. This allows you to invest your mental energy into important life decisions, whatever they may be.

Why Can’t the Poor Escape Poverty?


Published by

Jonathan Erdman

Writer. In the summers, I live and work in the incredible state of Alaska, in the bush community of McCarthy, as the Executive Director of the Wrangell Mountain Center. When not in McCarthy, you'll typically find me in the Santa Cruz Mountains of California, writing and working with local activists. My primary writing project right now is a novel set in remote bush Alaska, of the magical realism genre wherein an earnest and independent young woman finds a mysterious radio belonging to her grandmother, a device that has paranormal bandwidth and a disturbing ability to mess with one's mental stability.

7 thoughts on “Poverty and the Choices We Make”

  1. Sam sent me this article as well, so your post prompted me to email him my reaction. I repeat it here:

    These results are provocative, and they do fit with related studies showing that attention is a cognitive resource that can be depleted. Decision making, persistence on difficult tasks, resistance to influence or temptation or distraction — all of these can be adversely affected when limited cognitive resources have already been challenged by a difficult task (buying or not buying, eating or not eating).

    I wonder whether long-term poverty adversely affects decision-making and persistence in the long term as well. E.g., maybe the ability to handle repeated decisions competently is a skill that’s best learned in an environment where wrong decisions lead to relatively benign consequences. If one hasn’t had this experience — if, in other words, even childhood bad decisions can prove dire — is it possible that the person will always find decisions
    energy-depleting thereafter, regardless of changes in economic circumstances? In an impoverished environment, decision-making and resistance to temptation aren’t particularly adaptive skills. Some meaningful choice comes along only rarely, so the ability to deal with these situations isn’t important. What’s important isn’t to decide but to survive, taking advantage of whatever meager opportunities present themselves. If such a person who grows up in poverty gains more wealth later in life, does that person continue to find it difficult to make good choices, resist temptations, and so on because the “cognitive attention muscle” is permanently stunted, so to speak, in childhood?

    On my blog I previously cited empirical evidence on a tangentially related cognitive resource: the ability to do well on standardized aptitude and intelligence tests. Many studies have shown that scores on these tests is about 50% inherited, with the rest attributable to environmental factors. However, for people who grew up in poverty the heritable percentage is much lower. The implication is that the heritable portion of intelligence is permanently stunted by poverty. This sort of finding is more robustly demonstrated on physical characteristics; e.g., a person growing up in poverty doesn’t have enough to eat and consequently is likely to be smaller in stature for the rest of his or her life.

    So what are the implications? Would offering more training in decision-making and temptation resistance and task perseverance be of use to poor people? Or would a more equitable distribution of resources be a better solution? If evidence regarding physical stature and intelligence are generalizable, then financial equality is more likely to succeed.


    1. Thanks John. You make several good points.

      It makes sense to me, that long-term poverty would adversely affect decision-making abilities in the long-term. It also seems to follow that someone who lives in poverty, over the course of their lives, would be focused on survival and decisions that relate to their scarcity of resources.

      I think it follows then that when we in the middle classes talk about “doing whatever you want to do” or “being whatever you want to be,” we are engaging in a class-privileged discussion. I think this is a point that is really central to political discourse. Whenever I discuss poverty with people in the Midwest who vote as conservative Republicans, the discussion tends to eventually drift back to this: why can’t poor people just work harder, go to school, and earn their way out? I think there is actual confusion on the part of the conservative Republicans on this point, especially when the rags-to-riches success stories are constantly the center of attention, in films, music, politics, etc. “If I can do it, anyone can.” My response is always that the exception proves the rule; and why should it be so difficult for so many people to have to work so hard and risk so much just to live a normal life?

      I think that studies like these can help engage the rags-to-riches myth that keeps conservative Republicans thinking that poverty is merely a lack of work ethic. Saying that the poor are “just lazy” is too simplistic.


  2. I suppose the contravening interpretation would go something like this: since the poor are incapable of making good choices, the rich must decide for them. This has been the traditional position of aristocracies, slave owners, and imperialists.

    Lately I’ve been thinking about the possibility of direct democracy via, for example, having an online vote once a week on various issues affecting the citizenry. It would surely be argued that the masses aren’t capable of making good choices on political matters, that they would be too subject to outside manipulation and to their own unruly passions. I think the same could be said of our so-called representatives. I think I’d be willing to let the people decide, learning by experience how to get better and better at self-governance.


    1. Yes, I think that’s a fair point. Discussions of this nature seem to assume a certain stance of superiority. It is kind of the liberal version of elitism.

      One possible way to try to avoid this stance of superiority might be to recast the debate in more specifically objective and quantifiable terms, like discussing the specific consequences of economic choices: failure to invest in nutritious food results in adverse health consequences, a failure to invest in education limits one’s long term employment prospects, choosing to smoke meth leads to….

      I’m all for direct democracy. For one thing, it gives people more direct control of their government and affairs. This adds an incentive to stay informed and educated. Representative democracy seems to lend itself to a lazy electorate who only really tune into the issues around election time.

      What I am most enthusiastic about, in regard to direct democracy, is how it would operate at a local level. Presumably, people are more familiar with their local issues than what happens at a state or federal level. People might begin to realize that most local problems in our world are best resolved by local people, not by state or federal governments. Direct control of local governmental issues might also lead to a greater realization of the damage done to local communities through globalization. For example, for every job that Wal-Mart creates, the community will typically lose a job and a half. Studies that I have seen show that communities with Wal-Marts generally get poorer. All of the profits from Wal-Marts go to the execs out of town. Wal-Mart is just one example. My thought here is that if the people at large were more educated on the local effects of global capitalism and the inequality that it creates, then they’d be more creative in public policy and more conscientious about generating local economies that benefit local people and businesses.


  3. I hear you about local democracy. But wouldn’t you also want to participate in a national vote on whether to increase taxes on companies like Wal-Mart, or on capital gains of people who buy and sell securities like Wal-Mart stock, or on the income and property of wealthy people like the Waltons?


    1. Yes, I’m certainly in favor of more direct democracy at a federal level.

      You know, though, my enthusiasm may be slightly tempered by analysis in The Economist that I read a while back….let me see here…ah yes….here are some links to articles that I came across a few months back:


      California offers voter’s initiatives, recalls, and other forms of direct democracy. The Economist essentially blames these for tanking California’s economy. They have some points to make, although I’d still favor more direct democracy opportunities.


  4. It’s a sobering piece, and I don’t doubt that highly financed ad campaigns can move voters to make decisions that aren’t necessarily in their own interests. I wonder if Switzerland imposes limits on this sort of commercialization of the democratic process.

    I’d like to see the evidence of specific referenda that either raised expenditures or lowered taxes and the economic impact these votes had. Maybe if I get energized I’ll see what data I can dredge up. California’s deficit situation isn’t much different from many other states where direct democracy wasn’t an issue. And it’s certainly the same situation on the federal level. In both California’s and the US government’s case, what had been balanced budgets exploded into red ink under Republican administrations (Schwartzenegger and GWBush).


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