Human brain function represented by red and blue gears

If you've ever gone a night without sleep, you know how difficult it is to concentrate and focus on getting something done. Being poor can cause the brain to work just as poorly, according to a recent study on poverty published in the journal "Science."

Poverty impedes cognitive function, created by a challenging background of financial problems that can leave the poor more distracted and unable to concentrate on solving the daily problems of life, says Eldar Shafir, a Princeton University professor and one of the authors of the study.

Just as an air traffic controller focused on averting a mid-air collision will pay less attention to other planes in the sky, or a driver is more likely to crash if they're using a cellphone while driving, much of the poor's mental bandwidth, as the study calls it, is busy dealing with poverty.

IQ falls 13 points

Trying to pay bills for rent, groceries, electricity and other basic needs takes up so much of their cognitive capacity that they can't concentrate as well on doing things to get them out of poverty, such as looking for a job, going to school or borrowing money through payday loans that they can't afford.

"The poor have a lot more on their mind than just juggling finances," Shafir said in a phone interview.

The brain goes slower when a person is poor, he says.

The researchers conducted two field studies, finding that financial concerns have a cognitive impact comparable with losing a full night of sleep. In other IQ tests, they found that being in poverty was equal to losing 13 IQ points, or the same cognitive difference between chronic alcoholics and normal adults.

The experiments on effects of poverty

The researchers had people take a series of cognition tests after being told to consider a financial problem.

In the first test, about 400 people in  a New Jersey mall were asked what they would do if faced with a car repair that required either $150 of $1,500 in repairs. Would they pay for it in full, take out a loan, or put off the repair? The test subjects ranged in annual income from $20,000 to $70,000.

Before they responded, they were given tests measuring cognitive function and fluid intelligence by identifying sequences of shapes and numbers, for example. When the repair cost only $150, the "poor" and "rich" performed equally well on the tests.

But for the $1,500 repair, the poor performed worse on the IQ tests, leaving researchers to conclude that thinking about financial problems taxed their mental bandwidth.

The second experiment yielded similar results with a group of farmers in India who regularly lived through a cycle of poverty before a harvest comes in, and received 60% of their annual income in one lump sum after the sugarcane harvest. Before the harvest, when the farmers are essentially poor, they had the same cognitive shortage as the "poor" people at the mall.

Constant stresses of poverty

For Kristen Brown, an unemployed single mother of two in Florida who says she has been living in poverty her entire life, being poor is stressful and a daily problem she deals with. The end of the month is especially difficult, Brown says, when she runs out of money for food or turn-off notices arrive from the power company.

"I've gone as far as sell my own bed to get food and keep the lights on," she said in a phone interview.

She suffers insomnia from the stress of poverty, and says she feels "that sense of despair. You want to give up but with kids you can't give up."

"Every single day I get up and try to do something positive," says Brown, whose son has Asperger's Syndrome and sells children's books he has written and illustrated.

How to create more bandwidth

One thing that takes up so much of Brown's time is dealing with paperwork and strange rules from government agencies giving her food stamps and housing assistance, she says. Lessening such roadblocks can help poor people better spend their mental bandwidth in more productive areas, says Shafir, who also co-authored a book on how scarcity shapes society.

The research results show that poverty isn't a choice that's related to character flaws, or that poor people don't have the will to get themselves out of their problems, Shafir says. Instead, they found that people aware that they're spending so much mental energy trying to fight poverty can do such simple things as setting reminders to help them overcome some of their problems, he says.

"If you're more cognizant of your bandwidth, you try to do things to make it easier," he says.

But the problem is much bigger than getting poor people to help themselves, he says. Policy makers can make things easier, for example, by giving the poor less paperwork to fill out to get government assistance, Shafir says.

Like a pilot who has a cockpit designed  so they can more easily understand what's happening during flight, better financial cockpits for the poor need to be designed, he says. That can include help filling out student aid forms, which can increase college attendance 30%, Shafir says.

Others are providing free check cashing services for the poor so that they're not charged for such services, and automatic payments to their bank.

Brown says she's experienced plenty of excessive paperwork in getting government assistance, such as having to prove she doesn't receive child support so she can be eligible for housing funds. Proving that you don't get child support can be difficult, she says.

Another problem is requiring Section 8 housing subsidy users, for instance, to get off the program if they earn a little extra income, Brown says. Any bank deposit she makes for more than $50 must be explained to the federal program, sometimes within five days of a request, she says.

For example, if she deposits birthday money that her daughter received, or sells furniture for $100 and puts it in the bank, it's considered income. It's not taxable income, but it's income that the Section 8 program takes away through 33% of a housing subsidy. The same goes if she gets cash back from a debit card, and puts that money back into her bank account: it's considered income, she says.

Poverty leads to other problems

The human mind only has so much of an attention span, and spending a lot of it on being poor leads to other problems of poverty, researchers say. The poor use less preventative health care, fail to adhere to drug regimens, are tardier and less likely to keep appointments, are less productive workers, less attentive parents, and worse managers of their finances, according to the study.

Finding ways to help people get out of poverty — with such simple steps as bill reminders or helping a mom get childcare so she can have time to look for a job or attend college — can lead to a host improvements in their lives and help society as a whole.

For Stephanie Mayberry, a Virginia resident who lost her job this year and had to live in her van after her husband also lost his job, being poor is a constant drain on her energy. For example, she has learned to maintain her relationship with her husband while still trying to attend to their most basic survival needs.

"Before 'the collapse' it seemed I had a lot more room in my brain to think about things — survival was not one of them," Mayberry wrote in an email. "But after, survival took over and it pushed everything out of the way. Even my relationship with my husband has changed."

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