Think back to your worst, bad day. Nothing went right. Maybe you overslept and your car wouldn’t start or you missed your bus. Maybe you had an impossible task to complete for work or school. Maybe your boss was a jerk or your company was downsizing or you flunked out of college. Maybe the test results from the doctor were not good, for you or someone you love. There are countless ways you could have a worst, bad day.
Now think about how it made you feel. Did you want to crawl into bed and hide under the covers, cry, yell at someone? Could you feel the stress crawling on your body? Was your heart rate elevated? Did you have trouble thinking about anything but the cause of your toubles? How did you cope? Did you treat yourself to an ice cream cone, a glass of wine or a meal out? Did you take a mental health break and go home and crawl under the covers? Did you call on your family or friends for help? Whatever you did, you got through it. Maybe it took longer than a day, but you were able to put it past you, move on.
Now imagine that worst, bad day as a typical day for you. Imagine that the level of stress and frustration or uncertainty you faced on that worst, bad day, you face most days of your life. Additionally, imagine that many of the coping mechanisms you used to get you through that worst, bad day are not available to you. You don’t have any friends or family who can help you in any way except listen or commiserate. You can’t afford to take time out for a mental health break. You do not have the money to treat yourself to ice cream, alcohol or a meal out and if you do decide, “What the heck! It’s been a really bad day and I deserve a treat.”, you are certain to experience disapproval from someone who does not feel you are deserving of that treat, even after a bad day. Welcome to the reality of someone living in poverty.
Understanding that people in poverty probably live stressful lives is not very difficult for most people to do. They understand how stressful life can be with an adequate household income, and know it would probably be worse with less income. What most people do not realize is that living with that level of stress day in and day out affects one’s brain and impairs one’s cognitive abilities. In August 2013 researchers published the results of a study, that stated that “poverty imposes such a massive cognitive load on the poor that they have little bandwidth left over to do many of the things that might lift them out of poverty”. This condition the researchers called bandwidth poverty. When someone suffers from bandwidth poverty, s/he is spending most of his or her cognitive abilities figuring out how to put food on the table or pay bills and it becomes nearly impossible to think about the future and make long term plans. The study demonstrated that living in poverty created a mental stress that was equal to losing 13 IQ points, or stated another way, losing a whole night’s sleep. I have tried to function on little to no sleep and it was not easy. I can not imagine doing it day after day.
As a result of experiencing bandwidth poverty, performing basic life skills becomes incredibly difficult, resulting in faulty choices being made. When one’s mental capacity to handle a situation is overburdened, he or she is more likely to forget things, like appointments, setting alarm clocks or even paying bills on time. S/he will have less self control, which may result in that person giving in to temptations. Parenting skills will suffer, as a person with bandwidth poverty will have less patience and a shorter attention span for their children. Long-term planning activities, like saving money, getting more education or searching for a new job decome too taxing to continue or cease to even be considered. Of course this pattern of behavior feeds right back into the negative stereotype that people in poverty make bad decisions, and are therefore, soley responsible for their situation. In reality, however, the effects of bandwidth poverty create an insidious cycle, trapping those living in poverty in a succession of bad decisions, because they are incapable of thinking about and planning for the future.
It is easy to judge the actions of people in poverty from the context of a life where ends meet, even if you have to work hard to make ends meet and they meet just barely. It is easy to see how you would do it differently, how you would save and plan long term to pull yourself out of that terrible situation. You can see the possible path out, because you have the luxury of the mental bandwidth necessary to formulate those plans, since you don’t have to spend a majority of your time trying to figure out how to put dinner on the table or keep your lights and heat on and a roof over your head. Knowing what we now know from this study I once again argue for a strengthened social safety net. We need one that provides those in poverty with the support necessary to allow them to regain the required bandwidth to plan for the future and enact those plans, so that they can pull themselves out of poverty.
I am including below one last link. I encourage you to read it. The author is Linda Tirado, who has lived in poverty. I have also heard her speak on NPR and she has written a book called Hand to Mouth: Living in Bootstrap America. The piece is a little rough around the edges, but it gives a firsthand look into the life of someone who lives in poverty.