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The Mind of the Poor


artificially manufactured. It is poverty created in the pursuit of “free market ideals,” expressed in recent times by the imposition of neoliberal economic policies – the sort of policies that cut taxes on the wealthy, do away with fiscal and other business regulations, undermine the social safety net and erode middle-class stability – all while singing the praises of self-reliance and individual responsibility. As a result we have done very well in making the rich richer and the poor both poorer and more numerous. 

According to Current Population Survey (CPS), which puts out the government’s official figures, as of 2012 about 15 percent of the population, or some 46.5 million people, were living in poverty. The rate for children under 18 comes in higher, at about 21.8 percent.  

depressing fact that “most Americans (58.5%) will spend at least one year below the poverty line at some point between the ages of 25 and 75.”  

deep poverty.” Deep poverty is defined as having an income that is 50 percent of the official poverty level. This part of the population is growing. In my area, which takes in southeast Pennsylvania and southern New Jersey, the percentage in deep poverty runs from 5 to 19 percent, depending on the county. These are people who, according to social service and charity workers, “Have given up hope” and “given up on finding jobs.”   

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War on Poverty programs. Those programs reduced poverty significantly and did so without transforming the U.S. into a socialist republic. Unfortunately, this momentum was not to last. Two things brought it to a crashing halt: a murderous war in Vietnam and the tragically wrongheaded neoliberal economic policies mentioned above. We are still stuck in this rut. We are still at war (though now it is in the Middle East) and our economic policies continue to be self-destructive. "Verdana","sans-serif";mso-fareast-font-family:"Times New Roman";mso-bidi-font-family:
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"Times New Roman";mso-bidi-font-weight:bold”>The neoliberal outlook is demonstrably wrong in a significant way. The notion that the poor can make “free and rational choices” and thus can be held responsible for their situation is incorrect. There is accumulating evidence that poverty literally “messes with your mind” in a way that obstructs responsible choices. In fact, the “free market” contributes to an environment that makes the poor decidedly unfree: confused, preoccupied, and feeling overwhelmed and hopeless. In other words, being poor makes you cognitively dysfunctional. 

atest research to show this was published in August 2013 in the journal Science and is titled “Poverty Impedes Cognitive Function.” The gist of the argument is, “Poverty captures attention, triggers intrusive thoughts, and reduces cognitive resources.” In other words, the more preoccupied one is with troubles, the less able one is to muster the “cognitive resources” necessary to rationally “guide choice and action.” Most people find themselves overwhelmed with problems now and then, but not constantly. What living in poverty does is to hit a person with a toxic cocktail of overwhelming problems day in and day out: financial problems, health problems, parenting issues, victimization by criminals and others, and the problem of just finding and keeping a job.    

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"Times New Roman";mso-bidi-font-weight:bold”>This study is political dynamite. It lends support to the assertion that as long as neoliberal economics claims our allegiance, we will continue to condemn tens of millions of our citizens to a life not only of want, but also of high anxiety and poor cognitive ability. This puts the lie to the popular myth that the poor are disadvantaged because most of them are congenitally lazy. It likewise challenges the conclusions of such works as Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray’s The Bell Curve, which attributed at least part of the statistical difference in intellectual performance between American blacks and white to genetics. In truth, whatever statistical difference there is does not reflect inherent intellectual ability so much as high levels of long-term stress, which reduces a person’s ability to develop and apply their cognitive strengths. 
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"Times New Roman";mso-bidi-font-weight:bold”>It is quite interesting how the authors of the Science article conclude their piece. As it turns out, they have chosen to sidestep the real implications of their own data. Thus, they tell us “this perspective has important policy implications. First, policy-makers should beware of imposing cognitive taxes on the poor.” What does that mean? It means that policy-makers should try to reduce the number of forms the poor have to fill out, the number of “lengthy interviews” they have to experience, the number of “new rules” they have to “decipher,” all of which “consume cognitive resources” that we now know the poor have less of than those who are better off. Also, policy-makers should time their demands on the poor for specific periods when they are best able to handle them, such as when they receive whatever periodic income that they do get and momentarily feel less monetary stress. These conclusion constitute a rather shocking anticlimactic letdown! 

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cut the Food Stamp program by some $40 billion. That is neoliberal economics in action and proof positive that ideology and prejudice are stronger than scientific research when it comes to policy formulation. Is there a way to reverse this stupidity? Yes, but it will take mass action. It is time to consider replaying the 1960s and force the politicians to act responsibly despite themselves.  

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