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Study Finds Poverty Saps Mental Capacity

For the rich or middle-class it might seem reasonable to ask, Why can't poor people just try harder and pull themselves out of the cycle of poverty? According to a new study run by an international team of researchers, it's probably not as simple as just trying harder. In two separate experiments, the researchers determined that the mental strain of living in poverty can drop a person's IQ as much as 13 points. That's about the equivalent of staying up all night and going to school or work the next day. One of the lead researchers said, "Picture yourself after an all-nighter. Being poor is like that every day."

The researchers conclude, that "poverty itself reduces cognitive capacity" because "poverty-related concerns consume mental resources, leaving less for other tasks." In other words, we only have so much cognitive bandwidth to go around. For people in chronic poverty, that bandwidth is already getting filled up with urgent tasks, like worrying about where the next meal will come from. This saps them of the mental energy they need to fix their situation.

The study doesn't imply that the poor are beyond help or personal responsibility. Dr. Anandi Mani, a research fellow from the U.K., said the findings suggest that some people in poverty can find help from people who will walk beside them and provide small interventions or "nudges" to help them break out of poverty's cycle.

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