Chronic Poverty Can Lower Your IQ, Study Shows

Detroit, Mich.
Getty Images

By Max Nisen

The daily pressures and stresses of poverty take up so much mental energy that it reduces cognitive function. According to a new study, published in Science today, being preoccupied with money can cause low income people to suffer a drop in IQ of 13 points on average. A few comparisons highlight how severe that is. That difference in IQ is about the same as the gap between a chronic alcoholic and a normal adult, according to The Atlantic. It's comparable to the cognitive drop people see when they've just pulled an all-nighter.

In the researcher's first study, people across the income spectrum in New Jersey were asked how they would respond to a situation where their car suddenly required repair: Would they pay right away, borrow money, or put the repairs off for now. And how would they decide?

Before giving a response, they were run through a series of "common fluid-intelligence and cognition tests."

When the repairs were said to cost $150, poor and rich people performed cognitive tasks at the same level. When the number was $1,500, poor people performed far worse on those tasks, while wealthier individuals weren't affected.

Poverty is often blamed on "the personal failings of the poor," co-author Jiaying Zhao says. This is evidence that the situation itself hurts people's ability to concentrate and make decisions.

"Stress itself doesn't predict that people can't perform well - they may do better up to a point," Princeton professor and co-author Eldar Shafir says. "A person in poverty might be at the high part of the performance curve when it comes to a specific task and, in fact, we show that they do well on the problem at hand. But they don't have leftover bandwidth to devote to other tasks. The poor are often highly effective at focusing on and dealing with pressing problems. It's the other tasks where they perform poorly."

A second study looked at a more natural scenario, the abilities of Indian farmers who get the vast majority of their income after their harvest, but live under serious financial strain beforehand. Pre-harvest, they show the same strain and reduced mental bandwidth that the first study found in impoverished people. Post-harvest tests, conducted when the farmers were comparatively rich, resulted in higher scores.

More from Business Insider:

Increase your money and finance knowledge from home

Introduction to Retirement Funds

Target date funds help you maintain a long term portfolio.

View Course »

Introduction to Preferred Shares

Learn the difference between preferred and common shares.

View Course »

Add a Comment

*0 / 3000 Character Maximum


Filter by:

So many hard knocks...walking around punch drunk?

September 03 2013 at 8:17 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

How did they figger this one out?

September 03 2013 at 2:52 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
Edgar Ferrer

Some of my fellow conservatives do not get the point of the story, nor of the study. It is false to say, as some do or imply in their comments, that the only thing that keeps people in poverty is laziness and bad decisions. Yes, some people are in poverty as a result of bad decisions (lets forget job outsourcing for a minute). Yes, some people do not get out of poverty because they are lazy and do not want to work hard (lets forget the economy and unemployment for a minute). I think very few people would refute some people are poor as a result of their own actions and choices. But the point of these studies is that poverty itself can affects humans in negative ways which can affect their performance and mental abilities. What the study is saying is if two individuals are competing for a supervisor position, the one in poverty can be at a disadvantage when considered, not for lack of skill or performance, but because his/her performance can be affected by the stress cause by poverty as much as alcohol would.

September 03 2013 at 2:36 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to Edgar Ferrer's comment

Do what?

September 03 2013 at 2:53 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Sounds like an old question; what came first, the chicken or the egg? Does a lower iq make you more prone to poverty, or is it attitude? People with high iqs tend to be more adaptable and capable of learning to perform complex tasks, something a lot of poor people are not capable of. Or, to put it more simply, it could simply be a lack of motivation and being content with poverty.

September 03 2013 at 12:12 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to therigel's comment
Edgar Ferrer

IQ is about potential. A high IQ is meaningless if that potential of the individual is not developed. There are poor people with high IQ, just like there are rich people with average IQ. Keep in mind the one with the resources gets more (not necessarily better) opportunities to develop his potential. OF course, some people are content with poverty, but then we are no longer talking about poverty but about chronic poverty. They are not the same thing.

September 03 2013 at 3:06 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

"Progressive liberals" like FCI are mean spirited and unrealistic. Poor and stupid, are you, FCI?

September 02 2013 at 11:36 PM Report abuse -2 rate up rate down Reply
FCI Fincl Serv

I have been reading the comments and it seems like the exceptionally cruel ones are from the right wingers (the ones who think Rush Limbaugh is normal and his maid is the one eating all of the pain killers)! Intellectual capacity and and economic status must have no direct correlation because these hard hearted rectums are displaying sheer stupidity!

September 02 2013 at 10:59 PM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to FCI Fincl Serv's comment

FCI darling you definitely are displaying yours dear. How unfortunate for you.

September 02 2013 at 11:27 PM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply
Pope John

And carrying umbrellas makes it rain.

September 02 2013 at 10:50 PM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply

They got it backwards. If you are living in poverty, it's BECAUSE you have a low IQ!

September 02 2013 at 10:49 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
Thayer Jordan

I think they need to do a study on the people that do these studies!

September 02 2013 at 10:16 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to Thayer Jordan's comment

It would be easy since they are all in the looney bin.

September 02 2013 at 10:18 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

So, how many of you libs are poor and stupid? Evan, mily, the list goes on and on.

September 02 2013 at 10:16 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply