There’s some evidence that the distress associated with poverty, such as worry about where your next meal is coming from, can create a negative feedback loop, leaving the poor with fewer non-material resources to leverage against poverty.
In 2011, a study by Dean Spears of Princeton University associated poverty with reduced self-control. His empirical study attempted “to isolate the direction of causality from poverty to behavior,” resulting one possible explanation “that poverty, by making economic decision-making more difﬁcult, depletes cognitive control.” A working paper from NBER from earlier this year examined “Poverty and Self-Control,” and Bernheim, Ray, and Yeltekin found that “poverty damages the ability to exercise self-control.”
A working explanation runs along these lines: there is a finite amount of mental energy that each person has, and the more of it that is spent on things like worry and concern for acquiring basic needs each day, the less there is available for things like planning, making sound financial decisions within a limited timeframe, and other choices related to economic success over the long-term.
It can be difficult for social sciences, especially those like economics which often rely on models of rational actors, to account for the factors which lead to seemingly irrational behavior. But an anthropology informed by Christian theology, which recognizes the spiritual nature of the human person, including the anxiety that often attends to material insufficiency, goes a long way towards providing a coherent explanation and understanding of the complexities of poverty. The poor often experience a kind of despondency that can be crippling. Worry can create feedback loops which tend to reduce a person’s perspective of what is possible, a kind of poverty trap from which it can be difficult to escape.
Johnny Cash and Willie Nelson capture this dynamic well in their performance of “Worried Man,” from VH1 Storytellers (1998):
In the full recording of the Storytellers album, Johnny tells the genesis of this version of the song. He had encountered a beggar in Falmouth, Jamaica, who said, “Mr. Cash, I’m a worried man. I’m a very worried man.” Johnny thought, “Man, here’s a new approach. I’ve never had this one before.” Johnny asked what was worrying him, and the bum responded, “I got a wife and nine pikni [children] and no job. That makes me a worried man.”
As Robin Klay and Todd Steen explore in their article in the forthcoming issue of the Journal of Markets & Morality, the Christian virtue of hope is an important antidote to the devastating effects of worry, uncertainty, and depression. In “Christian Hope and God’s Providence in the Context of Economic Change and Development,” Klay writes about her experiences of the “‘stubborn hope’ of poor people, who, having very little, are nevertheless determined to use their labor, knowledge of markets and local resources, and small investments to open up a better future.”
Subscribe to the journal today to get access to the latest two issues, including Klay and Steen’s article as soon as it comes out.
And see the related piece by Todd Steen and me, “Hope and the Hunger Games,” over at First Things.