How Poverty Taxes the Brain – Emily Badger – The Atlantic Cities

How Poverty Taxes the Brain – Emily Badger – The Atlantic Cities.

The article opens with a brilliant premise about the limitations of human mental bandwidth. Reminiscent of our shared desire to have supernatural Jedi telekinetic powers, we are all easily able to convince ourselves that we can handle more than we actually can with cognition. We can’t. We can’t move things with our minds, bend spoons, or put words in people’s mouths. We can’t multitask. However, we CAN do a bunch of things piss poorly, and that’s considering all of our most basic needs are met and have been met for the majority of our developmental time early in life.

The author tackles a subject of growing popularity, the effects of poverty on one’s actual person beyond the deprivation of material luxuries. Paul Tough and Eric Jensen have done so as well in recently published works, and the evergreen Hart-Risley study famously analyzed the verbal/linguistic patterns of those in affluent homes versus those born into struggling households. There is even a connection to last fall’s Vanity Fair story on the bandwidth monitoring habits of President Obama. Specifically, Michael Lewis reported on the president’s intentionally sparse wardrobe choices as a way to eliminate banal decisions he has to make. Steve Jobs did so to the nth degree with his ubiquitous black mock turtle neck, jeans, and New Balance running shoes. Both of these men seem to understand the importance of reducing the cognitive burden of decisions that don’t net them gains in the areas of their expertise they care most about.

However, many people can’t afford that luxury of streamlining their life that much. It’s more chicken or the egg with the way that choices are put in front of you. As a teacher at an urban charter high school, I am often up against the poverty of my students’ lives, and the reality of their hard choices to make without much in the way of an appropriate bulwark of cognitive resources to assist in making the best choices. Which leads to more disorder. Chicken or the egg. With the emerging research indicating  that the effects of living in poverty  are at best difficult-to-remediate and at worse permanent problems, then it’s no wonder so many of our children are suffering intellectually in the convoluted education system we have in place. Achievement gap? As others have written more eloquently than me, we have a Poverty Gap. And it’s widening.


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