Study: Poverty Reduces Brainpower Needed for Things Like Education and Job Training

(Updated Below)

New research out of Princeton University suggests that the stress of poverty requires so much mental energy that poor people have significant less brainpower left in the tank to devote to learning:

A person’s cognitive function is diminished by the constant and all-consuming effort of coping with the immediate effects of having little money, such as scrounging to pay bills and cut costs. Thusly, a person is left with fewer “mental resources” to focus on complicated, indirectly related matters such as education, job training and even managing their time. (my emphasis)

Anyone who has experienced financial difficulties knows how stressful and all-consuming worrying about money can be, but this is one of the few studies I’ve seen that links the stress of financial insecurity to cognitive function. The researchers found that subjects consumed with financial insecurity dropped an average of 13 IQ points—the equivalent of losing an entire night’s sleep.

The researchers go on to suggest that services for the poor should be designed to accommodate this cognition loss:

The researchers suggest that services for the poor should accommodate the dominance that poverty has on a persons time and thinking. Such steps would include simpler aid forms and more guidance in receiving assistance, or training and educational programs structured to be more forgiving of unexpected absences, so that a person who has stumbled can more easily try again.

I would take this even further and suggest that this research supports the argument that, overall, we’d see better retention and greater learning gains in adult literacy and adult education among the poor if we alleviated the highly stressful conditions associated with poverty before they enrolled in a program of study or training, instead of just trying to accommodate those stressful conditions as they go along—somewhat analogous to the “housing first” approach to combating homelessness, in which providing stable, permanent housing is viewed as a critical first step before a homeless individual or family can be expected to address the issues that led to homelessness.

Adult education policy is based in large part on the premise that increasing educational opportunity will provide people with the skills they need to lift themselves out of poverty, which in turn is based on the premise (presumably) that a poor person’s lack of education is the primary reason (or at least one of the major reasons) that they are poor to begin with (as opposed to a lack of jobs, a decent wage, child care, health insurance, etc.)

Increasing funding for adult education is a strategy that seems primarily aimed at increasing access to adult education, but if our policy goal is to help people living in poverty  become successful adult learners, this study suggests that removing the highly stressful conditions of poverty for poor individuals before they embark on a course of study is an equally important strategy, instead of relying on adult education to lift them out of poverty after they have achieved some measure of academic success and confidence.

If so, then perhaps advocating for strong anti-poverty measures, such as living wage bills, or against proposals to cut SNAP benefits, needs to become part of the adult education field’s legislative strategy.

h/t Smithsonian SmartNews

UPDATE 9/3/13: The paragraph above that begins “I would take this even further” has been edited a bit so that it would read a little bit better.

Also, it occurred to me this afternoon that this program, which provides low-income single mothers enrolled in college with subsidized housing in residential communities with on-site child care, is a good example of an approach to adult education (in this case, in a community college context), that provides learners with initial and ongoing economic stability (in the form of housing and childcare). Perhaps, in addition to the broad-based antipoverty measures suggested above, policies that encourage the adoption and expansion of program models like this one should also be in the mix.