Is biology to blame for the poverty cycle?

Why we need to stop blaming the poor and help them take back control instead

Writer: Karolay Lorenty Vera
Editor: Lucy Masdin
Artist: Charlotte Capitanchik


Despite all the pessimists and nostalgics, the world has been getting better: we have fewer wars, epidemics, deaths. But one issue remains elusive – poverty. As wealth avoids falling in certain hands, poverty concentrates. Usually affecting minorities, poverty creates a “neighbourhood effect”, characterised by low education levels and high crime rates. Generation after generation, people in these areas make the same mistakes, trapped in cycles of poverty.

But who is to blame? Many people say that we choose our own fate. The American dream has become worldwide. You can get wherever you want if you work hard enough. It is inspiring, but is it true? Are people choosing to be poor? Is it a lack of drive or intelligence? Of course there are exceptions, we look at self-made billionaires that left behind their humble origins and we think it can’t be that hard. But they’re just that – exceptions. What is happening to the rest? Why does poverty stay in the same neighbourhoods, in the same countries? 

I guess it can all be reduced to this: poor people make poor decisions. School leaving, delinquency, crime, gambling, alcohol, drugs… But why? A recent study suggested that just being in a situation of poverty, even when transient, results in cognitive underperformance due to financial anxiety. Stress has a profound effect on us. 

As stress hormones like cortisol are overproduced, our body goes into ‘fight or flight’ mode, interfering with our decision-making. There is evidence that stress can reduce sensitivity to rewards, increasing the likelihood to develop pathologies like binge eating or pathological gambling. Moreover, stress increases the tendency to make high-risk decisions. There is also a switch from goal-directed to habit-based behaviour, impairing someone’s ability to adopt behaviours adequate for their long-term goals. 

Not only is our immediate future affected, our environment can also influence gene expression and change our biology for life. There can be long-term effects on mental health, Mental health can be affected long-term, as shown in the famous study by Meany and colleagues, where young mice exposed to low grooming by their mothers grew up to be anxious adult mice. Growing up alongside bad parenting, violence and crime can result in mental health issues, an additional struggle for poor families. Other aspects of health can also be affected. Several studies have found that in utero experiences such as starvation can increase susceptibility to multiple diseases, including diabetes and heart disease. 

Interestingly, in 2015, a study found that lower family income and shorter parental education, correlated with reduced brain surface area in children and adolescents. This does not mean that children from poor backgrounds are unmotivated or lazy, but rather that the circumstances they have been raised in have physical consequences. Stress can cause brain shrinkage and impair learning. But we can work around this; reducing family poverty can significantly affect children’s brain function and cognitive development. 

We need to stop blaming individuals, ignoring their circumstances, and turning our backs like it has nothing to do with us. This is not an opportunity to blame poverty on biology or say that “there is an interplay of genetic and environmental factors” and shrug our shoulders. It is our responsibility to ensure that everyone has similar opportunities. By changing someone’s environment we have the power to influence their biology, improve their performance, and thus change their lives.  

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