Poverty is Poison

On Saturday, Moises Velasquez-Manoff had a piece in the New York Times titled "Status and Stress." In the piece, the author provides a rundown of a very small portion of an immense literature on the damaging effects of poverty-induced stress. The most interesting part of this literature pertains to the effects of poverty on children, a topic about which most people seem to have a wrong or incomplete understanding.

For the most part, people believe one of two things about the long-term consequences of growing up in poverty. They either believe poverty has no effect and that your life outcome is almost entirely self-determined; or, they believe poverty negatively affects your life outcome insofar as it damages your opportunities. The first belief is obviously wrong, but the second belief is also not totally correct.

As Velasquez-Manoff details, poverty does not merely reduce the opportunities of kids to, for instance, go to a quality school, participate in costly enrichment activities, have access to networks, and develop cultural and social capital. It does certainly do all of those things, but more importantly, poverty-induced stress physically messes up kids, their brain development in particular.

So while we usually talk about poverty as an opportunity-destroyer for the nearly 1 in 4 American kids forced to suffer through it, it is probably better understood as a toxic poison that causes physical, permanent damage to kids' bodies. In that sense, poverty is -- as Elizabeth Stoker points out -- very similar to lead, a neurotoxin that also screws up the brains of kids exposed to it.

The lead analogy is a good one for purposes of policy construction. In response to learning that lead was messing up kids brains, we sought to eliminate exposure to it, e.g. by banning leaded gasoline, by banning lead paint, and by undertaking lead remediation projects. But we don't do that for poverty, not really. Neither party is out there saying we need to eliminate poverty exposure. Instead, we've decided to keep in place the economic institutions that cause poverty to exist, and frantically construct policies that mop up part of the disaster that impoverishment then causes. It would be as if, instead of eliminating exposure to lead, we just kept poisoning kids with it, and created a bunch of Lead Charter Schools that were specifically targeted for the needs of lead-poisoned students.

To the extent that poverty leaves permanent physical damage on the brains and bodies of poor kids, nothing short of eliminating poverty outright (e.g. through cash transfer programs) will actually solve all of the problems and unfairness that exposure to poverty causes. You can create dozens and dozens of marginally effective mop-up-the-disaster programs, but the kids exposed to poverty are still going to be physically and permanently messed up. So for those of us who truly believe in equal opportunity and the complete flourishing of all kids, the only appropriate policy goal is the one proposed by Oscar Wilde 122 years ago: "to try and reconstruct society on such a basis that poverty will be impossible."

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