A Philosopher's Blog

Poverty & the Brain

Posted in Business, Philosophy, Politics, Reasoning/Logic by Michael LaBossiere on July 14, 2017

A key part of the American mythology is the belief that a person can rise to the pinnacle of success from the depths of poverty. While this does occur, most understand that poverty presents a considerable obstacle to success. In fact, the legendary tales that tell of such success typically embrace an interesting double vision of poverty: they praise the hero for overcoming the incredible obstacle of poverty while also asserting that anyone with gumption should be able to achieve this success.

Outside of myths and legends, it is a fact that poverty is difficult to overcome. There are, of course, the obvious challenges of poverty. For example, a person born into poverty will not have the same educational opportunities as the affluent. As another example, they will have less access to technology such as computers and high-speed internet. As a third example, there are the impacts of diet and health care—both necessities are expensive and the poor typically have less access to good food and good care. There is also recent research by scientists such as Kimberly G. Noble  that suggests a link between poverty and brain development.

While the most direct way to study the impact of poverty and the brain is by imaging the brain, this (as researchers have noted) is expensive. However, the research that has been conducted shows a correlation between family income and the size of some surface areas of the cortex. For children whose families make under $50,000 per year, there is a strong correlation between income and the surface area of the cortex. While greater income is correlated with greater cortical surface area, the apparent impact is reduced once the income exceeds $50,000 a year. This suggests, but does not prove, that poverty has a negative impact on the development of the cortex and this impact is proportional to the degree of poverty.

Because of the cost of direct research on the brain, most research focuses on cognitive tests that indirectly test for the functionality of the brain. As might be expected, children from lower income families perform worse than their more affluent peers in their language skills, memory, self-control and focus. This performance disparity cuts across ethnicity and gender.

As would be expected, there are individuals who do not conform to the generally correlation. That is, there are children from disadvantaged families who perform well on the tests and children from advantaged families who do poorly. As such, knowing the economic class of a child does not tell one what their individual capabilities are. However, there is a clear correlation when the matter is considered in terms of populations rather than single individuals. This is important to consider when assessing the impact of anecdotes of successful rising from poverty—as with all appeals to anecdotal evidence, they do not outweigh the bulk of statistical evidence.

To use an analogy, boys tend to be stronger than girls but knowing that Sally is a girl does not entail that one knows that Sally is weaker than Bob the boy. Sally might be much stronger than Bob. An anecdote about how Sally is stronger than Bob also does not show that girls are stronger than boys; it just shows that Sally is unusual in her strength. Likewise, if Sally lives in poverty but does exceptionally well on the cognitive tests and has a normal cortex, this does not prove that poverty does not have a negative impact on the brain. This leads to the obvious question about whether poverty is a causal factor in brain development.

Those with even passing familiarity with causal reasoning know that correlation is not causation. To infer that because there is a correlation between poverty and cognitive abilities that there must be a causal connection would be to fall victim to the most basic of causal fallacies. One possibility is that the correlation is a mere coincidence and there is no causal connection. Another possibility is that there is a third factor that is causing both—that is, poverty and the cognitive abilities are both effects.

There is also the possibility that the causal connection has been reversed. That is, it is not poverty that increases the chances a person has less cortical surface (and corresponding capabilities). Rather, it is having less cortical surface area that is a causal factor in poverty.

This view does have considerable appeal. As noted above, children in poverty tend to do worse on tests for language skills, memory, self-control and focus. These are the capabilities that are needed for success and it seems reasonable to think that people who were less capable would thus be less successful. To use an analogy, there is a clear correlation between running speed and success in track races. It is not, of course, losing races that makes a person slow. It is being slow that causes a person to lose races.

Despite the appeal of this interpretation of the data, to rush to the conclusion that it is the cognitive abilities that cause poverty would be as much a fallacy as rushing to the conclusion that poverty influences brain development. Both views do seem plausible and it is certainly possible that there is causation going in both directions. The challenge, then, is to sort the causation. The obvious approach is to conduct the controlled experiment suggested by Noble—providing the experimental group of low income families with an income supplement and providing the control group with a relatively tiny supplement. If the experiment is conducted properly and the sample size is large enough, the results would be statistically significant and provide an answer to the question of the causal connection.

Intuitively, it makes sense that an adequate family income would generally have a positive impact on the development of children. After all, this income would allow access to adequate food, care and education. It would also tend to have a positive impact on family conditions, such as emotional stress. This is not to say that throwing money at poverty is the cure; but reducing poverty is certainly a worthwhile goal regardless of its connection to brain development. If it does turn out that poverty does have a negative impact on development, then those who are concerned with the well-being of children should be motivated to combat poverty. It would also serve to undercut another American myth, that the poor are stuck in poverty simply because they are lazy. If poverty has the damaging impact on the brain it seems to have, then this would help explain why poverty is such a trap.


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  1. CoffeeTime said, on July 14, 2017 at 11:02 am

    This is a subset of Nature/Nurture, yes?

    I won’t attempt to add to the sea of words and useful information on the subject. I am not qualified to contribute useful information, and I don’t know what other words could be helpful.

    However, I feel you are being unrealistic in believing that any experiment would shake the faith of those who are ideologically committed to the proposition that changing society will change genetics, or that genetics plays no important role in intelligence and subsequent career success, and therefore that any investigation into this subject must be inherently evil. We have decades of longitudinal and twin studies that the entire social sciences pointedly ignore.

    Anecdote: I met a young teacher many years ago, who seemed intelligent, well-versed in current curriculum and development, enthusiastic. energetic, and altogether excellent. She believed that educational underperformance was caused by poverty and parental ignorance or neglect. She had never been exposed to the idea that less-able parents were only able to get lower-paid or no jobs, which cause their poverty, and heredity was a factor in the children being less able too. I don’t mean that she didn’t believe it; in all her own education, the idea had never been presented to her.

    “If heredity were not overwhelmingly more important than environment, you could teach calculus to a horse.” Of course heredity is a factor. Of course nurture (including food, culture, education, stimulation, training) is a factor. I don’t see how it is possible for anyone to deny that both of these are factors. There is already a literature on the subject using natural experiments. While a – 20-year? – project costing – 40 billion? – dollars might add another data point, as a taxpayer I’d want to see some very specific argument about why this would add significantly to the information we already have, and, even more difficult, why people who adamantly resist any role for genetics would accept it.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on July 14, 2017 at 4:15 pm

      I certainly do consider, as noted in the essay, that there could be a case of reversing causation: that people who have less capabilities tend to be poor rather than poverty causing the reduced capabilities.

    • CoffeeTime said, on July 15, 2017 at 2:25 pm

      OK, so Nature/Nurture was a complete red herring here. Dr Noble’s paper is much narrower and more focused than I had gathered from this essay. While her paper is paywalled, she has a piece in WaPo “How poverty affects children’s brains” where she expresses her hypothesis: that parental stress specifically during the first three years of a child’s life causes a lack of brain development.

      “When parents are distracted or depressed, family life is likely to be characterized by conflict and emotional withdrawal rather than nurturing and supportive relationships with children. Parents don’t talk and read to their kids as often and make less eye contact with them. This accumulation of stress in children’s lives has cascading effects on brain systems critical to learning, remembering and reasoning.”

      I am reminded of the classic PhD Comic “The Science News Cycle” http://phdcomics.com/comics/archive.php?comicid=1174

      • TJB said, on July 15, 2017 at 3:13 pm

        In August, the journal Science published the results of an ambitious initiative called the Reproducibility Project, a collaborative effort coordinated by the nonprofit Center for Open Science. Participants attempted to replicate 100 experimental and correlational psychology studies that had been published in three prominent psychology journals.
        The results — widely reported in the media — were sobering. Just 39 of the studies were successfully replicated (Science, 2015). Psychology, it seemed, had a credibility problem.
        But in many ways, the media missed the point. Brian Nosek, PhD, a psychologist at the University of Virginia and executive director of the Center for Open Science, and his colleagues chose to focus on psychology because they are psychologists — not because there’s something fishy going on in the field. Reproducibility is a concern throughout science, he says.
        In this study, teams of psychologists were asked to attempt to replicate studies that had been published in 2008 in three journals: Psychological Science, the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, and the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition. The researchers attempted to replicate the conditions of the original experiments as closely as possible. To that end, the authors of the original studies reviewed the materials and methods of the replication studies.
        Despite the care taken to reproduce the experiments exactly, more than half of the studies failed to replicate. When the effects were replicated, they tended to be smaller or weaker than those of the original study. On the other hand, correlational tests showed that when the original studies had lower original p values or larger effect sizes, they were more likely to be replicated.
        Nosek and his co-authors attribute the reproducibility problem, in part, to a combination of publication bias and low-power research designs. Publications favor flashy, positive results, making it more likely that studies with larger-than-life effect sizes are chosen for publication.


        • CoffeeTime said, on July 15, 2017 at 10:30 pm

          Yes, TJB, there is a replication crisis – p-hacking, and all that. And this is exactly the type of study, a reanalysis of data created elsewhere, that is most vulnerable to the kinds of statistical misleads that Ioannidis points out.

          But the point of interest to me here is much more mundane. As in so many other cases, like the cartoon illustrates, a study is done – which could be perfectly valid in itself – and then, as the gossip circle around it widens, its findings are generalised, exaggerated, and misrepresented. This does harm, as the conditionals and caveats are stripped away in the simplifications, and false beliefs affect people’s perceptions, decisions, and positions on public policy.

          A study of this type can never be more than suggestive, and Dr. Noble is quite right in calling for a more targeted study as a follow up. It will be of much smaller scope and cost than my first thoughts, when I believed the nature of the study to be broader, but it would still be a 5-year study that would transfer over $6M to the subjects, and I suspect would leave little change from a budget double that. What’s more. I can see how it would be an extremely difficult project to manage, and especially I can’t even imagine how to isolate and identify any mechanisms that retard brain development in any convincing way. If she manages to secure funding, keep her groups engaged, and produce strong results, she will have my respect.

          Until then, though, this is just one among many studies of weak power showing possible effects, that was picked up by a couple of high-volume publications knowing that it would interest their specific demographics.

          • TJB said, on July 16, 2017 at 12:16 am

            I’ve always assumed that the problem is that journalists are more interested in telling a good story than an accurate one.

            • WTP said, on July 16, 2017 at 7:22 am

              Have you ever read a story about a subject which is in your area of expertise? Something you know about because you’ve spent years/decades in the industry or other niche? If so, how accurate have you found that reporting to be?

            • CoffeeTime said, on July 16, 2017 at 3:42 pm

              I’m not even sure it’s about telling a good story, so much as telling the story that a segment of readers want to read in a place where they will read it.

              I followed Ben Goldacre’s Bad Science on his blog since 2005 or so, I think. It’s still there, but inactive now. Most of it deals with scientifically unfounded or outright fraudulent claims intended to sell things like nutritional supplements, but there is also much about how misleading, sloppy, and downright dishonest newspaper coverage of papers can be. He used to say that the Daily Mail was engaged in a Great Project to classify all substances in the Universe into those that cause cancer, and those that prevent cancer. Their readership was interested in that sort of thing, so almost any paper on the subject, however weak or dubious, could get coverage. Similarly, the WaPo and SciAm and NYT current readerships (I weep for the SciAm of my youth) will pay to read anything that suggests that the universe can be fixed with the right taxes, benefits, and regulations. Journalists write the stories that make for good ratings, the stories their readership wants to see. And many do so with insufficient time, so the result is churnalism, where press releases are used almost unchanged.

              From following Bad Science, I learned never to believe anything in any media report of a study without reading the study itself.

              Then from Steve McIntyre I learned how easily “respectable, peer-reviewed” papers themselves can contain bald-faced lies, obvious inconsistencies, circular reasoning, and hidden or non-existent data, with no challenge from the publishers or the process.

              And I consider we all have a responsibility not to spread false information. Otherwise, we’re no better than one of Trump’s worst habits: “I’m was just telling you what people told me.”

              So nowadays, if I see a report of a paper that interests me, I read the paper, I read any expert commentary on the paper, and I look at the SI and data where available. Then I can have the beginnings of an informed opinion.

            • WTP said, on July 16, 2017 at 5:21 pm

              I weep for the SciAm of my youth

              As do I. Curious, about when did you sense it beginning to slide?

            • CoffeeTime said, on July 16, 2017 at 6:59 pm

              WTP, SciAm went downhill for me sometime between the launch of Omni and the end of Martin Gardner’s column.Omni (and there was another similar one, I think?) targeted scienci-ness rather than science, had some decent SF and some seriously whacked new-age quantum consciousness nonsense, but was pulling readers from the same pool as SciAm. I remember thinking at the time that SciAm was trying to cover more of the softer ground to match them. And SciAm’s lifetime editor retired around then as well. When Gardner ended, I realised that was the only article in the magazine I was still reading. Hofstadter’s GEB was a wonderful experience, but he couldn’t point up the fun and the beauty in simple forms the way Gardner could, so I stopped my sub.

            • TJB said, on July 16, 2017 at 8:08 pm

              CoffeeTime, are you a practicing scientist?

            • TJB said, on July 16, 2017 at 8:14 pm

              I stopped reading SciAm after the way they treated Bjorn Lomborg and his book “The Skeptical Environmentalist.”

            • TJB said, on July 16, 2017 at 8:17 pm

              “Have you ever read a story about a subject which is in your area of expertise? Something you know about because you’ve spent years/decades in the industry or other niche? If so, how accurate have you found that reporting to be?”

              It is generally terrible. But it is hard to dumb something down without getting it wrong.

            • Michael LaBossiere said, on July 19, 2017 at 4:49 pm

              True on both points. I’ve noticed the same thing-in many articles I read about things I actually know about, the content is often not just simplified but also in error. Which worries me, since I also have to rely on simplified articles for things outside my limited areas of expertise. So, I always wonder how much information is wrong and how much is oversimplified to the point it might as well be wrong.

            • WTP said, on July 16, 2017 at 10:13 pm

              Why do you presume the subject needs to be dumbed-down? Generalizations are necessary, I understand. What I have seen is even the generalizations are way off the mark. Where I see the problem is that there are far too many people who like to write about things but too few of those are willing or have the time to actually understand the complex subjects they are covering. Very much the case in engineering (especially anything to do with space travel), economics, or anything dependent upon an understanding of statistics.

            • WTP said, on July 16, 2017 at 10:20 pm

              CoffeeTime, well that sounds about right. You were a little ahead of me there. They lost me in the late 80’s/early 90’s. Though I think there were still some good articles in it up until about 2000 or so when I finally cancelled my subscription. There was an article I specifically recall around 1993 or so on gene sequencing that I specifically found very useful such that it prompted me to make a couple very lucrative investments. Their economics column was a joke long before that, though.

            • CoffeeTime said, on July 18, 2017 at 12:38 am

              TJB, no, I wanted to be a physicist from the age of 5 until about 15, but life didn’t work out that way for me. I did always keep an eye on what was happening in the hard sciences though. Now, of course, I can read the latest on the Arxiv anytime; I just can’t understand nearly all of it. 🙂

              WTP, you’re probably right that the decline was gradual, and I’m sure they have at least occasionally insightful and informative articles even today. The internet was another factor that hit the great information aggregators in the 90s. When you can get direct access to the scientists and innovators, the magazines become merely gatekeepers. BYTE magazine, the flagship of the computer information revolution itself, succumbed to that as well in the same sort of timeframe.

            • CoffeeTime said, on July 20, 2017 at 7:08 pm

              “I always wonder how much information is wrong and how much is oversimplified to the point it might as well be wrong.”

              Let me phrase my understanding carefully: If you read an article in a non-specialist publication about a statistical or scientific study in a bio-medical or policy-relevant area, it is virtually certain that at least some of the information you believe you have gained is false, misleading, or out of proportion. It is very likely that the core message of the article is wrong, or at least unsupported.

              You should not believe me on this, of course, any more than you should believe press reports, without digging deeper for yourself. It might make for an interesting series of posts for your blog, of applying critical thinking and search skills to the processes and interests that shape a study, and the processes and interests that select and promote specific studies to the readership of a publication.

              Studies need to be funded. Start there. Funding is usually listed in the small print of the paper. Who funded the study? The source does not, of course, determine the truth value of the study, but it often affects the question being addressed. Most NGOs need funding. They get funding from donors. They want to have studies they can show donors to oil their wallet hinges. NGOs that don’t need funding have policy goals. They want to have studies their lobbyists can show politicians and civil servants. Companies want studies that put their products, or the need their products address, in the news that their demographic reads. NGOs and companies have better lobbyists and media contacts than researchers do. Thousands of studies are published every day. No reporter can review them all. The studies that are covered in mainstream media are predominantly those that are promoted to reporters by the PR people in companies and NGOs who have an interest in wide advertisement for some part of the conclusions.

              This distribution selection bias is so significant as to have earned some notoriety. We know about it in medical fields, of course. In policy, the British government had to introduce restrictions to prevent departments funding NGOs to lobby and support policy positions last year.

              All of this does not reflect on the quality of the research, but it does mean that the reports that make the news disproportionately represent the interests of organisations that want to influence donations, purchasing, or policy.

  2. TJB said, on July 14, 2017 at 2:40 pm


    I’m curious if you view graduate students as living in poverty? Most of them could easily earn more money, but choose not to. Do you think the children of grad students at, say, Harvard are being deprived?

    • WTP said, on July 14, 2017 at 4:08 pm

      TJ, I’m curious if, by the loose standards/definitions Mike uses to make his points, if you think Mike lives on welfare? He openly tells us his students rarely show up for class. He rarely fails any of them. It’s almost a no-show job. Not quite but close. Sure he grades some papers and such but if the students really don’t need to go to class (he’s rated as an easy-A on professor rating site). Again, using Mike’s loose language.

      • TJB said, on July 14, 2017 at 4:46 pm

        I suspect Mike is one of the harder working and more committed professors in the Department. It is a sad but true fact of life at the University that professors need to get high ratings from the students. The challenge is to get those high ratings while still allowing those students who want to learn to benefit from the class.

        What frankly surprises me is that none of Mike’s students, so far as I am aware, has ever posted a comment on this site.

        • wtp said, on July 15, 2017 at 11:20 am

          What frankly surprises me is that none of Mike’s students, so far as I am aware, has ever posted a comment on this site.

          Yeah, that kinda usta, but after a few years of this nonsense, and given his whining about his customers (students) not showing up, not so much. What does surprise me is this is the first time in all these years that anyone has mentioned it.

          I suspect Mike is one of the harder working and more committed professors in the Department. It is a sad but true fact of life at the University that professors need to get high ratings from the students.
          Not sure why you suspect that. I’m not saying that I doubt he thinks he’s working hard, given what is discussed here and the lack of interest by his students, who let’s face it, are simply fulfilling some credit hour requirements with an easy class. The “work” is little more than the make-work you see in large bureaucracies and especially in socialist-style economies and such. Might as well be digging a hole and filling it back up again. That’s hard work, but if anyone is paying you for it, it’s not for any purpose.

          Look, I know I’m coming across very harsh here, and have for quite some time. Though over the years you’ve come around to some of my perspective on at least the thick-headedness. But let me take some time to clarify where I am coming from.

          I can’t get past the first paragraph on the majority of Mike’s posts because the very premise of damn near every one is flawed. This one is no exception. The very first sentence is BS. If ever there was a “myth” it is the one Mike and such perpetuate that rising out of poverty to success is itself a myth. Simple 19th century Marxist whining. Same old story for 150-200 years that gets repeated over and over and has now become the narrative. I have seen, with my own eyes, as I’m sure you have as well, people who started out with little or nothing and rose to middle and even upper class success. My own parents came out of what by today’s terms would be “poverty”. My mother was raised in a single-parent household. My grandfather died in the depths of the Great Depression (1932) leaving my grandmother with 3 grammar school age children. My grandmother considered going on public assistance but to do so would require giving up what little equity they had in their house. She refused government “help” and was probably the best decision she could have made. They all worked, each of them doing what they could from renting a spare room (to a guy my mother described as being rather creepy) to sewing for neighbors to sweeping up for local shop merchants, etc. Both my mother and her brother (other brother died in the war) rose to middle class. Neither one with more than a high school education.

          My father’s father was a coal miner and farmed rented land when the mines slowed down for the summer. They lost 2/3 of what little savings they had when the bank failed in their little western PA town. All my numerous cousins are doing well except for the two or three who are basically lazy. My father came home from the war and started engineering classes but had to drop those when his father died unexpectedly. He worked to support the family until all his sisters were married and his brother was working. Never went back to school, quit engineering to run a successful business through the tough business years of the 70’s. Provided for our family a moderately (there were some tough years) comfortable middle class existence.

          Several people I have known from high school grew up in lower-middle class/working class at best. A couple from “broken homes”, one friend lived with his worthless mother. One of those friends is a now vice president of Gartner Group. A couple others are millionaires through other means. And Mike dares to call people such as this mythological? I think Mike needs to get out of the ivory tower and into the real world.

          But let me tell you a little more about where I am coming from on this…I have done a good bit of volunteer work both in the school system as a student mentor and with churches and such helping people on the edge of homelessness and even a couple homeless. The ONE thing I find in common amongst those struggling is a feeling of hopelessness, an undercurrent of feeling worthless or unneeded. What I find most terribly frustrating is trying to break through the real mythology, the one of the narrative that Mike and such perpetuate, that “the little guy can’t make it” etc. I have yet to encounter a person who keeps their nose clean, stays out of trouble, and just applied themselves who could not be at the very least a modest success in this life. Yes, there is mental illness and drug abuse and such that prevents people from succeeding. Their problems definitely need to be approached from a different angle. But those are a minority. What every person I have worked with has needed was a direction and a sense of hope. What angers me about the leftists in our midst is they undermine that hope with a mythology of “you can’t do it (so why even try?)”. There are plenty of jobs out there, even with the disastrous socialist policies that Mike and his ilk promote. The small family-run marina that my wife works for in the summer is constantly in need of help because they can’t find reliable people to simply show up on time and do their jobs. And people in that area of Appalachia complain that there are no jobs. No jobs, yet jobs go unfilled. Demand for labor is high. But a business can’t be employing people who don’t want to work.

          One thing that I have found especially frustrating lately is the idea of “privilege”. I was working with one homeless support group, going through the training, and we were required to line up and take a step forward or backward based on the “privileges” that the 20-something “instructor” read off a card. Things like “did you take vacations as a child” , “did you ever go away to summer camp”, etc. Complete bullocks. Those things aren’t privilege. What I surmised from those fellow volunteers being trained in that room with whom I spoke, both “privileged” by the given definition and not, was that we were indeed all privileged but in a much different manner. Whether growing up rich, poor, or middle class, those of us in that room were privileged in the sense that we had important people in our lives, mostly parents but sometimes aunts and uncles and such, who held us to a higher standard. Who expected us to show up on time and to do things. To stay out of trouble. But almost as important is we grew up in an environment that encouraged us to try, that instilled in us a sense of help and self-worth. Not a self-worth based on nothing, like this self-esteem BS you see today, but a self-worth in the sense that we were challenged to do well, helped when we failed and (usually moderately) appreciated when we succeeded.

          I could say so much more and meant to when I sat down here but I just don’t have the time. I just needed to vent my frustration about how damn hard it is to help people get out of poverty when they get soooo much negative input. It angers me very much to watch people struggle when they don’t have to. It is sooo hard to get through to them that there is hope, that they have the capacity to get and hold a good job, when the mythological narrative of the media and academia and such overwhelm in volume of what those of us who are trying to help them can provide.

          • wtp said, on July 15, 2017 at 12:52 pm

            Ran across this slightly similar sentiment…

          • TJB said, on July 15, 2017 at 12:53 pm

            Lots of good points, WTP. With your volunteer work you have really walked the walk.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on July 14, 2017 at 4:14 pm

      An interesting question.

      On the one hand, a grad student who is getting by just on what they earn for teaching could be seen as living in poverty. When I was in grad school, I could just afford rent, books and barely enough food (I learned to hunt for campus events with free food)-so I got a taste of poverty.

      On the other hand, as you say, the grad student is voluntarily poor and could probably just get a decent job. Also, the grad student is not locked into poverty–they will most likely move on to a job. A grad student could, of course, end up in poverty for real–if they are unemployed or working as an adjunct.

      Grad students thus present an unusual case-they tend to be low-income, but it is usually temporary and they typically come from middle class or better backgrounds and can draw on family resource if they have kids.

      But, your comment does make an interesting point: is it the income that matters the most, or other factors? I am guessing that your Harvard remark is aimed at suggesting that child growing up in a low-income family of grad students would still generally do quite well. Testing this would, of course, require controlling for family support and other such factors that would make the poor grad students such that they are not actually in poverty.

      • TJB said, on July 14, 2017 at 4:52 pm


        So why would a person get “locked into” poverty? What prevents a person from taking steps to get out of poverty? What fraction of people in poverty at any given time are “locked in”?

        • WTP said, on July 20, 2017 at 11:42 am

          Notice not so much as a clown nose for this question.

        • WTP said, on July 25, 2017 at 12:27 pm

          And still no answer from The Great And Powerful Ethicist on this one. Nor a couple others on later posts where you essentially asked the same question.

          • TJB said, on July 25, 2017 at 5:14 pm

            • WTP said, on July 29, 2017 at 10:18 am

              And still no answer. It’s like he’s afraid of something.

            • WTP said, on August 6, 2017 at 1:04 pm

              Hey TJ, I’m curious about something. Why would a person get “locked into” poverty? What prevents a person from taking steps to get out of poverty? What fraction of people in poverty at any given time are “locked in”?

              I would say, putting aside mental illness/trauma and/or substance abuse that can lead to such, a misplaced sense of hopelessness is a major reason. A feeling of worthlessness that gets reinforced by pronouncements from The Narrative that the little guy just can’t make it on his own without help from certain kinds of politicians and such. These feelings can sometimes be hidden behind an anger or an acting out. Behaviors that many such people engage in because they have been misinformed and ill informed by The Narrative, so their resulting failures must be masked to protect their egos. Not saying necessarily that all such people have big egos. We all have egos, or something similar…not a Freud fan, to protect. It’s simply human. I submit that many such people can be happy, productive members of society, with high self-worth and self-esteem based on real world accomplishments if they weren’t so misinformed of their own unique potential by The Narrative.

            • TJB said, on August 7, 2017 at 10:15 am

              I don’t believe that people get “locked into” poverty. Maybe the only thing that comes close is that people on disability can’t work too much or else they lose their benefits.

            • Michael LaBossiere said, on August 7, 2017 at 5:24 pm

              Getting out of poverty is hard; so it does seem to provide a metaphorical lock on the door to advancement. Sure, some folks kick that door down. But most do not. People tend to mostly stick within their class of origin, with some notable exception that provide nifty anecdotes.

            • WTP said, on August 7, 2017 at 12:49 pm

              I don’t believe that people get “locked into” poverty. Maybe the only thing that comes close is that people on disability can’t work too much or else they lose their benefits.

              Actually, I would say that is further from being locked in than what I described. People choosing to work less so that they don’t lose their benefits, by the nature of having or acknowledging that they have that choice, are not nearly as locked in as the kinds of people I describe above. People who due to ignorance and misinformation believe that they are in a sense disabled. Or less than abled.

              Perhaps you would agree that they are locked in to a perception that they can’t get out of poverty? If so, do you believe that it is possible to change that perception in a significant number of people?

            • WTP said, on August 9, 2017 at 1:07 pm

              Sure, some folks kick that door down. People tend to mostly stick within their class of origin, with some notable exception that provide nifty anecdotes.

              Define “tend to”. Define “mostly”. Mike and his weasel words…And yet neither addresses TJ’s original questions, which I shall reiterate again…

              Why would a person get “locked into” poverty? What prevents a person from taking steps to get out of poverty? What fraction of people in poverty at any given time are “locked in”?

              To which I would add, what inspires “some folks” to kick that door down? Or even better, what prevents others from doing likewise? As for my latter question, I do acknowledge living in an environment of overwhelming crime is a significant factor for many people. But not 100% of them. Something motivates those folks. And what about those who are not so limited?

  3. WTP said, on July 23, 2017 at 7:46 pm

    What Mike don’t know. From the New York Times:


    Who is the prototypical American millionaire? What would he tell you about himself?(*)

    * I am a fifty-seven-year-old male, married with three children. About 70 percent of us earn 80 percent or more of our household’s income.

    * About one in five of us is retired. About two-thirds of us who are working are self-employed. Interestingly, self-employed people make up less than 20 percent of the workers in America but account for two-thirds of the millionaires. Also, three out of four of us who are self-employed consider ourselves to be entrepreneurs. Most of the others are self-employed professionals, such as doctors and accountants.

    * Many of the types of businesses we are in could be classified as dullnormal. We are welding contractors, auctioneers, rice farmers, owners of mobile-home parks, pest controllers, coin and stamp dealers, and paving contractors.

    * About half of our wives do not work outside the home. The number-one occupation for those wives who do work is teacher.

    * Our household’s total annual realized (taxable) income is $131,000 (median, or 50th percentile), while our average income is $247,000. Note that those of us who have incomes in the $500,000 to $999,999 category (8 percent) and the $1 million or more category (5 percent) skew the average upward.

    * We have an average household net worth of $3.7 million. Of course, some of our cohorts have accumulated much more. Nearly 6 percent have a net worth of over $10 million. Again, these people skew our average upward. The typical (median, or 50th percentile) millionaire household has a net worth of $1.6 million.

    * On average, our total annual realized income is less than 7 percent of our wealth. In other words, we live on less than 7 percent of our wealth.

    * Most of us (97 percent) are homeowners. We live in homes currently valued at an average of $320,000. About half of us have occupied the same home for more than twenty years. Thus, we have enjoyed significant increases in the value of our homes.

    * Most of us have never felt at a disadvantage because we did not receive any inheritance. About 80 percent of us are first-generation affluent.

    * We live well below our means. We wear inexpensive suits and drive American-made cars. Only a minority of us drive the current-model-year automobile. Only a minority ever lease our motor vehicles.

    * Most of our wives are planners and meticulous budgeters. In fact, only 18 percent of us disagreed with the statement “Charity begins at home.” Most of us will tell you that our wives are a lot more conservative with money than we are.

    * We have a “go-to-hell fund.” In other words, we have accumulated enough wealth to live without working for ten or more years. Thus, those of us with a net worth of $1.6 million could live comfortably for more than twelve years. Actually, we could live longer than that, since we save at least 15 percent of our earned income.

    * We have more than six and one-half times the level of wealth of our nonmillionaire neighbors, but, in our neighborhood, these nonmillionaires outnumber us better than three to one. Could it be that they have chosen to trade wealth for acquiring high-status material possessions?

    * As a group, we are fairly well educated. Only about one in five are not college graduates. Many of us hold advanced degrees. Eighteen percent have master’s degrees, 8 percent law degrees, 6 percent medical degrees, and 6 percent Ph.D.s.

    * Only 17 percent of us or our spouses ever attended a private elementary or private high school. But 55 percent of our children are currently attending or have attended private schools.

    * As a group, we believe that education is extremely important for ourselves, our children, and our grandchildren. We spend heavily for the educations of our offspring.

    * About two-thirds of us work between forty-five and fifty-five hours per week.

    * We are fastidious investors. On average, we invest nearly 20 percent of our household realized income each year. Most of us invest at least 15 percent. Seventy-nine percent of us have at least one account with a brokerage company. But we make our own investment decisions.

    * We hold nearly 20 percent of our household’s wealth in transaction securities such as publicly traded stocks and mutual funds. But we rarely sell our equity investments. We hold even more in our pension plans. On average, 21 percent of our household’s wealth is in our private businesses.

    * As a group, we feel that our daughters are financially handicapped in comparison to our sons. Men seem to make much more money even within the same occupational categories. That is why most of us would not hesitate to share some of our wealth with our daughters. Our sons, and men in general, have the deck of economic cards stacked in their favor. They should not need subsidies from their parents.

    * What would be the ideal occupations for our sons and daughters? There are about 3.5 millionaire households like ours. Our numbers are growing much faster than the general population. Our kids should consider providing affluent people with some valuable service. Overall, our most trusted financial advisors are our accountants. Our attorneys are also very important. So we recommend accounting and law to our children. Tax advisors and estate-planning experts will be in big demand over the next fifteen years.

    * I am a tightwad. That’s one of the main reasons I completed a long questionnaire for a crispy $1 bill. Why else would I spend two or three hours being personally interviewed by these authors? They paid me $100, $200, or $250. Oh, they made me another offer–to donate in my name the money I earned for my interview to my favorite charity. But I told them, “I am my favorite charity.”


    • TJB said, on July 29, 2017 at 9:13 am

      Middle-class progressives have no qualms about exercising their natural right to determine the moral values of our world. Yet a fairer approach would surely entail sacrificing one’s own comfort for a cause. The trickier and scarier consequences of enlightened policies should fall on those who champion them, yet they rarely do.

      The habits of progressive social and political discourse almost seem calculated to alienate and aggravate lower class whites. I confess that if a well-dressed, university-educated middle-class person of any gender or ethnicity so much as hinted at my ‘white privilege’ while I was a lumpen child, or my ‘male privilege’ while I was an unskilled labourer who couldn’t afford basic necessities, or my ‘hetero-privilege’ while I was a homeless solitary, I’d have taken special pleasure in voting for their nightmare. And I would have been right to do so.

      As an aspirational teenage lumpen, I learned to embrace a working-class ethos. It was a simple, experiential lesson: whenever I allowed myself to feel like a victim, I fell into paralysis and deep poverty; whenever I took pride in my capacity to work and endure, things got slightly better. One world view worked; the other didn’t.

      Even if I was wronged or oppressed or marginalised, claiming victim status seemed absurd (since I often came across people who were more unfortunate than me), limiting (since there were other, enriching aspects of life to focus on), humiliating (because in the working-class world self-pity is reviled), and self-defeating (because if you allow yourself to think and behave like a victim, you quickly fall into lumpen despair).

      At university, I discovered that this ethos didn’t apply. A season of despair would not send middle-class teens spiralling into a life of drug-addled indigence; they could simply brush themselves off and enrol again next year. Strong, class-enforced safety nets meant that self-pity could be accommodated, and victimhood could even form part of a functional identity.

      Indeed, the willingness to expose your wounds is another sign of privilege. Those for whom injury has a use-value will display their injuries; those for whom woundedness is a survival risk, won’t. As a consequence, middle-class grievances now drown out lower class pain. This is why the wounded lower classes come to embrace conservative discourses that ridicule middle-class anguish. Those who cannot afford to see themselves as disadvantaged are instinctively repulsed by those who harp on about disadvantage.


      • WTP said, on July 29, 2017 at 10:13 am

        This. Sooo much this. The Narrative absolutely hates to hear this and will do all it can to drown it out and/or dismiss it. I see a President Kid Rock in our future. The more the elites and their sycophants like Mike recoil in horror from such, the more likely it becomes.

        I have noticed this rising lately. The leftist elites and their cuck GOPers have bet on, and to a significant extent fear, those elements of the lower classes who have few aspirations beyond grabbing what they haven’t worked for. For the most part this works to at least keep those elites in power. In contrast, hard working lower class people like this writer, and I might note my parents and aunts and uncles, eventually rise out of lower classes. Many have children who want to be accepted by the elites and thus are intimidated into leftist ideology thus helping solidify the leftist grip. But as things get more socialist, as wealth gets stratified, the later generations of working classes like this guy begin to get cut out as it gets harder and harder for them due to shrinking economic opportunities that are the result, as shown time and time again throughout history of socialism, the political winds may now be at an inflection point. While my prediction above is a bit tongue in cheek, ten years ago I never would have considered it possible. Not just because of who KR is now or was then but more to the kind of dissatisfaction of those in the working classes who actually work.

        • TJB said, on July 29, 2017 at 10:33 am

          I’ll call your Trump and raise you a Kid Rock!

        • TJB said, on July 29, 2017 at 11:32 am

          • WTP said, on July 29, 2017 at 11:48 am

            His campaign slogan sums up the way many working class people feel. Closer than any GOPe or even Trump.

            I believe if you work your butt off and pay taxes, you should be able to easily understand and navigate the laws, tax codes, health care and anything else the government puts in place that affects us all.

            • TJB said, on July 29, 2017 at 2:09 pm

              Letting ordinary people understand the law–that man is clearly a radical!

  4. WTP said, on July 29, 2017 at 3:44 pm

    TJ, curious your thoghts on this. What do you take from this besides the main topic of the importance of grit?


    • TJB said, on July 29, 2017 at 4:54 pm

      Saw this sentence hiding in the weeds…

      “Contrary to popular belief, grit has a more significant correlation to high school graduation rates than things like family income and social status do.”

    • TJB said, on July 29, 2017 at 4:56 pm

      From what I have observed, not everyone has the desire to excel. Lots of people prefer being part of the herd.

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