The logic behind the “illogical” mindset of students and families in poverty

psychology of pvertyOne of my first teaching experiences, over a decade ago, was in a HeadStart program located in a dense urban area. I loved working with my students’  families and became pretty friendly with a parent who would often confide in me about personal and financial issues.

She told me how she had trouble paying her rent each month. Her daughter wore clothes that were two sizes too small. She was late to school on many mornings because the car wouldn’t start and they’d wind up taking the public bus. She depended on HeadStart to provide breakfast, lunch, and an afternoon snack for her child because dinner was all she could afford.

One morning in late January, the mother showed up in my classroom proudly wearing a beautiful bright red leather jacket. I was slightly stunned. “Wow! That is gorgeous! Where’s it from?”

She smiled at me proudly. “Oh, I went to Macys. I got $350 back for my tax refund!”

I tried to suppress my shock and pretended to be happy for her. But inside, I was totally judging her decision. You can barely house, clothe, and feed your family, but you spend your tax refund on a leather jacket for yourself? Shouldn’t you be using that money to pay down your credit card debt or take care of bills or buy things for your children?

It was a moment that really stuck with me because I realized how much I still had to learn about the community in which I’d chosen to teach. I’d had many meaningful connections with this student’s mother, but the day I saw that leather coat, I felt like we were living on separate planets. I simply couldn’t understand how that purchasing decision made sense in her world.

I was reminded of this incident recently when I came upon an article in The Atlantic called Your Brain on Poverty: Why Poor People Seem to Make Bad Decisions. It included this thought-provoking quote from a person who has known only a life of financial hardships:

“I make a lot of poor financial decisions. None of them matter, in the long term. I will never not be poor, so what does it matter if I don’t pay a thing and a half this week instead of just one thing? It’s not like the sacrifice will result in improved circumstances; the thing holding me back isn’t that I blow five bucks at Wendy’s. It’s that now that I have proven that I am a Poor Person that is all that I am or ever will be.

It is not worth it to me to live a bleak life devoid of small pleasures so that one day I can make a single large purchase. I will never have large pleasures to hold on to. There’s a certain pull to live what bits of life you can while there’s money in your pocket, because no matter how responsible you are you will be broke in three days anyway. When you never have enough money it ceases to have meaning. I imagine having a lot of it is the same thing.

Poverty is bleak and cuts off your long-term brain…It does not matter what will happen in a month. Whatever happens in a month is probably going to be just about as indifferent as whatever happened today or last week. None of it matters. We don’t plan long-term because if we do we’ll just get our hearts broken. It’s best not to hope. You just take what you can get as you spot it.”

According to the latest research, the woman who wrote that was completely correct about poverty “cutting off your long-term brain.” A groundbreaking new study claims living in poverty is equivalent to losing 13 IQ points. Because the brain is always preoccupied with trying to meet basic needs, there is less mental energy available for processing other decisions.

…poverty imposes a kind of tax on the brain. It sucks up so much mental bandwidth – capacity spent wrestling with financial trade-offs, scarce resources, the gap between bills and income – that the poor have fewer cognitive resources left over to succeed at parenting, education, or work. Experiencing poverty is like knocking 13 points off your IQ as you try to navigate everything else. That’s like living, perpetually, on a missed night of sleep.

This research (originally released in the journal Science) shows that poverty actually changes the brain—the impact can be literally seen in the amydyala, which regulates emotions.

Over the course of the longitudinal study – which included 49 rural, white children of varying incomes – these same poor children were also exposed to chronic sources of stress like violence and family turmoil, or crowded and low-quality housing. Those kinds of stressors, the researchers theorize, may help explain the link between income status in childhood and how well the brain functions later on. That theory, they write, is consistent with the idea that “early experiences of poverty become embedded within the organism, setting individuals on lifelong trajectories.”

To add some of these findings together: Poverty taxes the ability of parents to do all kinds of things, including care for their children. And the developmental challenges that children face in a home full of stressed adults may well influence the adults that they, themselves, become.

Because teachers are expected to single-handedly undo and compensate for the effects of poverty in the classroom, it can be tempting to view students’ parents as the enemy. If only mom and dad were making better decisions, my job wouldn’t be so hard, we think.

But I can say with certainty that the times I stood in judgment of families’ decisions did absolutely nothing to foster my relationships with them or make me a better teacher. Trying to frame their decision-making within the context of my middle class worldview only frustrated me and drained me of the energy I needed to help my students.

To paraphrase blogger Derek Thompson, the psychology of poverty may appear irrational to those not in poverty, but is actually a highly rational response to a world of chaos and unpredictable outcomes.  The best thing we can do for our students is to try to empathize with their families’ struggles, recognize that their decisions make sense within the context of their environment, and choose to work with them to fight against the effects of poverty, rather than fight against the people living in poverty themselves.

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Angela is a National Board Certified Teacher with 11 years of classroom experience and 7 years experience as an instructional coach. As founder of Due Season Press and Educational Services, she has created printable curriculum resources, 4 books, 3 online courses, the Truth for Teachers podcast, and The 40 Hour Teacher Workweek Club. Subscribe via email to get her best content sent to your inbox!

{ 14 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Heather aka HoJo March 5, 2014 at 8:45 pm

AMEN! This post perfectly describes the “aha!” moment I had while reading Ruby Payne’s Framework for Understanding Poverty. We may never “get” why people do what they do, but we have to be strong for the students who must live with the decisions their parents and guardians make. Thank you for a wonderful post! Now I’m off to read the other articles you have hyperlinked!

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2 Ally March 6, 2014 at 7:55 am

I can’t thank you enough for this post! I am a first year teacher in a Title 1 school. I know this is exactly where I’m supposed to be, but there have been many wake up calls to the differences between my students’ lives and my own. I can not impose my upbringing/reality on my students. I am very interested to research this concept more. If you have any suggestions of books/blogs/research that I should read, I would love to check them out. Thank you!

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3 Angela Watson March 7, 2014 at 2:57 pm

Hi, Ally! A lot of people recommend Ruby Payne’s book, as Heather did. I’ve heard a lot of criticism about it, though, saying it’s based on stereotypes and is condescending. I haven’t read it in years, but I do recall it being an interesting read. I think it’s worth checking out so you can form your own opinion. I’ve heard good things about Eric Jensen’s book Engaging Students with Poverty in Mind and Teaching Students with Poverty in Mind. I will try to review one or more of those books in the coming months and offer a giveaway.

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4 Paul March 6, 2014 at 1:37 pm

Angela Watson: Thank you for sharing this insightful vision of how the poor make choices. Continue to be an advocate for better choices for a better world.

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5 Leslie March 6, 2014 at 9:57 pm

I also enjoyed this article, but have mixed feelings on some of the statistics and anecdotes. I grew up as a (very) poor, rural white child. While my parents did have some of the characteristics you described above, they always encouraged me to be more, do more… not perpetuate the cycle. I did it with the help of a military enlistment to pay for college. I now work in a title one school in what would be considered a rural area… and I see exactly the poverty mentality you described: we just got our taxes…let’s go get a new Xbox, cell phone, etc. knowing we’ll run out of food this month. It makes it all the more maddening to me as someone who “made it out.” I try to encourage my students with if I can do it you can too, but they’d rather imitate the parent collecting a welfare check when they see how hard I had to work. So I do appreciate the sentiment and at the same time, some judging may be in order. What my parents gave me was encouragement and hope that I could one day have what they didn’t have. Is that really too much to ask of parents today? I hope not!

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6 Angela Watson March 7, 2014 at 2:53 pm

Thank you for your comment, Leslie! I guess my thought is that we only have a small window of understanding into families’ lives. In my situation, I had no way of knowing if the jacket was to help the mom look more presentable at a job interview, or if she had also purchased things for her children, or if she was just trying to save face and told me she bought it at Macys with a tax refund when in fact it was a hand-me-down or from a thrift store. Judging parents really doesn’t accomplish anything. Even if the parent is 100% “wrong”, what good does it do to dwell on that? What purpose is there is being right and casting a student’s family as wrong? For our own sanity, if not for the sake of relationships, we’re much better off acknowledging that we don’t know the full story and refusing to cast judgment based on partial information.

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7 JoLynn August 21, 2014 at 10:21 pm

This is extremely well-presented. Thank you!

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8 Angela Watson October 3, 2014 at 12:52 am

You’re very welcome!

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9 sdw January 15, 2015 at 7:07 pm

Hi! I present Ruby Payne’s Understanding Poverty to my preservice teachers every semester in Educational Psychology. I agree that it can be stereotypical, the important part is to filter that out and use the content as a medium to discuss the bigger picture. The bigger picture includes the fact that the vast majority of teachers are white, female, middle-class – we need to be nonjudgmental and supportive of these families. Your piece is wonderfully written and supported. Thank you.

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10 Sternberg November 9, 2015 at 10:37 am

Poverty “cuts IQ by 13 points”? How, pray tell did anyone arrive at that? They didn’t. The article is part co-enabler, and part “we need to help, not judge”. We do need to help. We probably do not need to judge. We do need to stop being co-enablers, because that is not helping.

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11 Angela Watson November 9, 2015 at 1:06 pm

Good question about the IQ points. From the source linked in the post:

“In a series of experiments run by researchers at Princeton, Harvard, and the University of Warwick, low-income people who were primed to think about financial problems performed poorly on a series of cognition tests, saddled with a mental load that was the equivalent of losing an entire night’s sleep. Put another way, the condition of poverty imposed a mental burden akin to losing 13 IQ points, or comparable to the cognitive difference that’s been observed between chronic alcoholics and normal adults.”

Can you share more about what you think is co-enabling? I’m also curious about your statement that “we probably do not need to judge.” Is there circumstance in which making a judgment about a person’s motives would be helpful?

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12 Brianna December 27, 2015 at 5:46 pm

I think this is an important topic so that we can look at our students from a holistic perspective; however, as a child who grew up in poverty who became a teacher who teaches students from low-income homes in a rough city, I think that while we should not judge families we should also not lower standards or make excuses.

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13 Lorraine Sheehan May 18, 2016 at 11:50 pm

very interesting, I grew up in poverty and have spent many years working and advocating for people in poverty I am always amazed at how strong and resourceful was and they are, we survived. What i think is the most important to remember is that two people living in the same circumstance will not have the same experience, and unless we can switch brains we will never know how either of them feels or thinks of there circumstance. We may be able to comment on their outward behavior but we are not walking in their shoes. There is little room for judgement as it is not only poverty but every other thing that person has experienced. No one needs for us to negatively judge them.

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14 Angela Watson May 19, 2016 at 7:00 am

Beautifully said. Thank you so much for sharing your perspective.

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