I recently came across a fascinating article in Harvard Magazine. Its title, “The Science of Scarcity,” sums up an emerging topic among behavioral economists, the people who study why we make the economic decisions that we do.
What they find is that when any of us are poor—indeed when we face scarcity of any kind—we tend to make bad decisions. Poverty actually lowers our IQ by limiting what these economists call our “bandwidth.” When we are consumed with the problems of poverty—like where our next meal is coming from—we have less of our brain left over to think clearly in a long term fashion.
Did you know that in this country high school students’ SAT scores correlate consistently with only one measurement: household income? The higher the income, the higher the score, and vice versa. Some say this shows that the wealthy can afford test prep tutors. Others say it proves that our capitalist meritocracy works, that the smart are rewarded.
But it’s clear to me that students living in poverty do not score lower because they are inherently less intelligent. They score lower because the stress of poverty robs them of their intelligence. As the article states, people aren’t poor because they sometimes make bad decisions; people sometimes make bad decisions because they are poor.