Living in poverty has the same effect on the brain as regularly going without sleep

“What we’re arguing is it’s not about the individual. It’s about the situation,” said one researcher

Published August 30, 2013 5:38PM (EDT)

                     (AP/Robert F. Bukaty)
(AP/Robert F. Bukaty)

According to researchers at Harvard University and the University of British Columbia, people living in poverty experience reduced cognitive functioning as a result of regularly wrestling with how to make ends meet. People struggling to get by were found to suffer a drop of as much as 13 points in their IQ, approximately the same difference found in people who go an entire night without sleep.

“Past research has often blamed [poverty] on the personal failings of the poor. They don’t work hard enough; they’re not focused enough,” University of British Columbia professor Jiaying Zhao, who co-authored the study, told the Washington Post. “What we’re arguing is it’s not about the individual. It’s about the situation.”

More from the Washington Post:

As part of the study, researchers conducted experiments on two groups of subjects: low- and middle-income shoppers in a mall in New Jersey, and sugar cane farmers in rural India.

In the mall experiment, shoppers underwent a battery of tests to measure IQ and impulse control. However, half the participants were first given a “teaser” question — what they would do if their car had broken down and needed $1,500 worth of repairs — designed to put a pressing financial concerns at the forefront of their thoughts.

In India, researchers tested the cognitive capacity and decision-making of farmers before the sugar cane harvest, when they were most strapped for money, and afterwards, when they had fewer financial woes.

The results showed that people wrestling with the mental strain of poverty suffered a drop of as much as 13 points in their IQ.

As ThinkProgress notes, other studies have drawn similar conclusions about the mental strain of living with scarcity.

“While the poor may be experiencing a scarcity of money, at some level what they may really be experiencing is a scarcity of bandwidth, of cognitive capacity,” co-author and Harvard economist Sandhil Mullainathan told the Post. “It’s the situation that’s creating the stress.”

“You are captured by these monetary issues -- how to pay rent, how to pay bills,” Zhao added. “As a result, you’re less attentive to other problems. You neglect other things in life that deserve your attention.”

By Katie McDonough

Katie McDonough is Salon's politics writer, focusing on gender, sexuality and reproductive justice. Follow her on Twitter @kmcdonovgh or email her at

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