Too Stressed for Success

Article excerpt

What is the cost of being poor in America? Researchers have long known that because of a broad reduction in retail and other consumer choices experienced by America's poor, it is often simply more expensive to be poor in the United States. Food shopping when you are poor in America doesn't mean taking the minivan out to Costco; it can mean walking to the only "supermarket" in the neighborhood, often a small corner retail operation with high markups on food and household supplies.

This "poverty tax" extends to virtually all aspects of the lives of America's low-income families. Financial services and mortgages cost more for poor people. Check-cashing, rent-to-own, and payday loan operations skim vast sums from the poor. And a new study reports that the physical and psychological costs of being poor are surprisingly high.

Of course, it's no news flash to learn that poverty can be stressful. Anyone who has ever confronted a dining room table covered with a collage of unpaid bills and collection notices understands a little of the day-to-day psychological toll.

Free market fans often suggest, in a blame-the-victim rationale that neatly reduces the social obligation to give a damn, that poor people just make bad choices. But is it the bad decisions which contribute to their poverty, or is it poverty itself which drives people to make bad--sometimes even destructive--choices?

Cognitive scientists from Harvard, Princeton, and England's University of Warwick studied shoppers in a New Jersey mall (and for a global perspective, farmers in Tamil Nadu, India). They discovered that considering a projected financial decision, such as paying for a car repair, affects people's performance on unrelated spatial and reasoning tasks.

Lower-income individuals performed poorly on these tasks if the car repairs were expensive, but they did fine if the anticipated costs were low. Higher-income individuals, liberated from the stress of figuring out how to pay for the repairs, performed well in either scenario, as if the projected financial burden imposed no cognitive pressure. …

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