Poverty Reduces Cognitive Capacity
The fact that poverty makes life harder is hardly news, but the science that shows how poverty reduces cognitive capacity is. The accompanying infographic below shows the correlation – poverty consumes mental resources, which reduces IQ and leaves less capacity for other tasks.
Two of my nieces were a week away from college finals. Both were talking about late nights, and mind-diminishing fatigue, and both took heart in the fact that it was only a temporary condition. Harvard Economist, Sandhil Mullainathan, says: “Poverty is the equivalent of pulling an all-nighter. Picture yourself after an all-nighter. Being poor is like that every day”. I would further say: Imagine being a single Mom with two children, the youngest of which has a serious medical condition. Then imagine not knowing how you will purchase the medications for your child and food for the upcoming week. Or how you will explain to your older child why you can’t buy school pictures this year.
Raising a family is hard work, doing it on the mental capacity equivalent to pulling an all-nighter, inconceivable. The Social Work Degree Center infographic also shows that more than half of us will live in poverty at some point before we are age 65, and woman and children experience the greatest poverty. Currently, in Washington, 1 in 5 children live below the poverty line. Poverty isn’t the struggle of a few in our country; it is the reality of many.
This past spring, WithinReach Chief Program Officer Sharon Beaudoin spoke on a CityClub panel about the effects of poverty on health. More importantly, Sharon and fellow panelists, Ben Danielson, MD, (Odessa Brown Children’s Clinic), Gordon McHenry (Solid Ground), and Sam Whiting (Thrive By Five) talked about what we can do to support families living in poverty, how we can change the picture. The conversation was many-sided.
The first step to changing this reality is being aware of how poverty affects millions of families every day. Despite operating with limited capacity due to poverty, social injustice, health inequity, lack of access and more, Dr. Danielson was quick to remind us that the families we serve everyday are strong and resourceful. Let’s keep the conversation going, and make the connections Washington families need to be healthy!
Reflections sparked by the Bridges out of Poverty Training
Three years ago in February, I met a 65 year-old woman, Berta, whose husband’s health was failing. She had recently lost her job of fifteen years and was told it was a result of the recession. She felt like it had more to do with her age. Before that month she had never asked anyone for help, but when I met her she was in line at a food bank. She shared that the food bank was a true lifeline that allowed her to keep enough food in the house and without it, she and her husband would have gone hungry. However, the food bank was packed with standing room only, and on days like that, everyone is tense. All Berta could think about was the fact that the last time she left her husband alone for a few hours, he had fallen broke his wrist and now Berta could see no way of paying off the piles of bills.
I started at WithinReach, fresh out of university, as an AmeriCorps service member. In college I had spent a great deal of my time dedicated to studying the social and political systems of the outside world in courses like Political Science, Spanish and Religion. I also worked at the Diversity Center where we created programming aimed at exposing students and community members to the beauty of diversity and to the prominent influence of privilege and oppression in our world. Pacific Lutheran did a great job of opening my eyes to the complexities of our world…but after my first few months as an AmeriCorps at WithinReach, I was ready to preach about how a person has to be “in it”–living and working with people like Berta–before you get even close to being able to understand the reality of our beautiful yet broken world. I have lived in that mindset ever since the beginning of my service, but after attending a fabulous training in March, my hard-line stance has started to become tempered.
This past March, I went to a training called Bridges out of Poverty. This two day seminar, facilitated by Jodi Pfarr, was specifically directed at service providers and it presented a wealth of tools for understanding and combating poverty. I had so many “aha!” moments, that I came to realize that after three years of working in the field, I had become complacent. I got lost in the grind of reality and forgot to pursue the knowledge and theory that would keep me learning about the systems and the roadblocks of oppression and poverty. I had forgotten that a person needs to balance both living “in it” and getting “above it”, in order to be able to reflect on solutions to our society’s problems.
Berta’s story is one of many that have stuck with me through the years. I feel good about the fact that she and I worked through the application process for Basic Food (food stamps) together, and that she was able to supplement the food she got at the food bank with more fresh fruits and vegetables from the grocery store We also talked about creating a payment plan in order pay off the bills she owed.
I wonder how things turned out with Berta and her husband and I obviously still think about them from time to time. Reflecting back, perhaps her story is so powerful to me because it is so similar to many other stories that I have heard and been part of since. The cycles and patterns of poverty are definitely what impact me most. However, working at a place like WithinReach–a place that provides opportunities to grow with trainings and experiences like Bridges out of Poverty–I am confident that I will continue to work as part of the solution.