The Psychology of Poverty
“You the mother fucker writing about us so white people can see how poor we are?”
“That’s me,” I confess.
It’s an incredibly cold Sunday morning in February and Leticia is corralling her three kids to get ready for church. Her two youngest are playing hide-and-seek, zipping past portraits of Martin Luther King, Jesus Christ, Barack Obama, and grandma in the hallway of her Harlem apartment.
“We have ten minutes to get to the bus. Don’t be expecting to take a Lyft, because I’m not paying for that shit. Andre’s college ain’t going to pay for itself,” she yells.
As we get to church and sit down before the start of the congregation, she quickly apologizes for not shaking my hand when meeting.
While we wait for the sermon to begin, Leticia provides a rundown of her day before church at 10:00am. On Sundays (her one day off), she wakes up at 4:00 am to bring groceries over to her parents’ house, then she scrubs down her sister’s salon, clips grocery coupons, scavenges free locals events to do with the family, heads to the local market where she can pay her utility bills, and updates her monthly budget of $4,000 she takes home after taxes (the poverty line in New York City, for a family of four, stands at $5500 a month).
If there’s a spare five minutes, she’ll choose between having a granola bar for or catching her breath.
“I love me some yoga and that Arianna Huffington girl, but when the hell do I have time for that?”
For the roughly 43 million Americans living in poverty like Leticia, every component of life – grocery shopping, logistics, transportation, family support, and work – are a series of compounding mental hurdles that slowly frazzle the mind and weaken the soul.
While there is justified attention over the financial burden of poverty, so often the psychological toll of being fiscally hard-strapped is overlooked.
Leticia M. (who asked not to provide her full name for fear her ex-husband might find this information and contact her) is a full-time office assistant at a major law firm in Manhattan and who also helps run her sister’s nail salon on Saturdays.
Within minutes of interacting with this SUNY Albany grad, one can detect the extreme intelligence, care, and quick-wit running through the DNA of this 3rd generation Harlem native entering her early 40s. Friends tell me she’s a powerful presence at a party, and whose absence at any social event is greatly felt. She dreams of going to Paris with her sister for two weeks where they can sip vino and, as she says, “give zero fucks about all my troubles.”
“She’s like Mr. Rogers…if he was black, loved soul music, and knew every damn thing about wine.” Her sister tells me.
Unlike most of the 12 percent of Americans living in an abject poverty, Leticia has insurance, sick days, and time off. Yet, even with these benefits, navigating through life is still a psychological minefield.
“She’s absolutely brilliant. Leticia has been working here for 15 years and the only time she misses work is to spend time with her family. She’s the only mother at this law firm who doesn’t have a nanny and, between you and me, the only mother here who’s attended all her kid’s functions and birthday events,” her colleague and good friend Mark explains to me on the phone.
“But I know that things are incredibly tough. She’s afraid her colleagues will describe her as lazy if she takes a day for herself or say she should be grateful for this “opportunity”. They’ve done that with anyone else we hired from Harlem. It’s bullshit. Everyone else got their jobs through their alma mater, a friend, or spouses. She’s the only one at this company who got her job on her own. She started as an office cleaning lady, asked really smart questions, learned quickly, studied when her kids were sleeping, and worked her way up. This place would shut down if she ever left.” (The law firm currently represents multinational companies like Shell, Nabisco, and Pillsbury).
In talking with her closest colleague, two things are clear – Leticia is by far the best employee at her company but has the most on her mental plate. Her manager (not wanting to be identified) tells me any slippage in her performance isn’t because of aging or lack of effort, but because her mind is being bombarded with weighty life hurdles, hampering her ability to focus.
There is a common misconception that those in poverty are less bright and bold, that their lives stymied solely by their own actions. But substantive research shows otherwise. When Princeton neurologists tried to decipher differences of emotional intelligence between their students (largely upper-class individuals) and those in poverty, researchers found that the poor are more astute in their decision making than many students who attend the Ivy League Institution. Among the employed and impoverished, credible research has concluded that the poor are better at multitasking, client servicing, interacting with people of various backgrounds, and are far more creative when their mind is at ease.
Regardless of socioeconomic status, humans have finite mental resources. However, the barrage of mental stresses on those in poverty exhaustively elongate their scarce cognitive capital and absorb all their mental energy, leaving many with a paltry amount of brain bandwidth to be sharp decision makers (let alone ponder long term or re-calibrate their life to pursue means to escape poverty).
As Tara Garcia Mathewson, from The Atlantic, underscores, “When a person lives in poverty, the limbic system is constantly sending fear and stress messages to the prefrontal cortex, which overloads its ability to solve problems, set goals, and complete tasks in the most efficient ways.”
During my first phone call with Leticia, she tells me about the litany of issues plaguing her on that particular day: continuing to help her parents, assisting her sister, navigating life without a computer (roughly 50 percent of those in poverty lack a home computer), pinpointing a spot where her kids can do homework without the sound of gunshots, and time to pay her bills.
One day, the library is closed, and the family is scrambling to finish all of the various documents Andre needs to fill out for financial aid. They spend a whole day trying to complete scholarship applications and the federal aid package on her smartphone (none of the kids have phones and neither does her immediate family) but all the Apps and websites repeatedly crash. Each of these sites gives you thirty minutes to fill out these applications on your phone before cancelling your submission, but each form easily takes an hour to complete.
When we go to a grocery store, Leticia is incredibly strategic with her purchases. Bread is bought every other week, milk during basketball season, and fruits in summertime. Desserts come from leftovers from work events.
“It kills me that I can’t make my kids a peanut butter and jelly sandwich on the weekends like my mama used to,” she tells me after we share our bewilderment over almond milk.
While many of us in the middle-class deal with stress, have family issues, and are often in a professional quagmire, the scale of our dilemmas are comparatively minimal. We have modalities to escape to, time to unwind, and services (self help literature, meditation workshops, office work/balance programs) we’re financially capable of accessing. In our time, I can see that I’m metaphorically juggling bean bags, Leticia is juggling knives dipped in acid.
“I want to see life as black and white, do this and then that will happen, but mother fucker it’s all gray and I don’t think that will ever change how hard I work.”
When Poverty Met Sally
And by no means is this gruesome mental burden placed on those solely being buried under the hustle and bustle of a metropolitan area. Those living in suburban or rural areas, have a higher risk of drug addiction and isolation, are at more risk of significant lapses in decision making, memory, focus, patience, and awareness.
I touch base with an old employee of my father, Sally D. (also wanting to shield her last name for fear of an abusive ex-spouse). When I FaceTime with Sally she is still pencil thin, has beautiful dark brown eyes as big as a fifty-cent piece, outdated prescription glasses, and wavy long red hair that still hides the weight of the world behind her snappy humor.
“Mother fucker. I need to use my little shit neighbor’s phone to call you. What the hell man, you have to become a coastal douchebag before you talk to me again. I loved ya man.” She says before we speak on the phone for the first time for this article.
“Hey, hey. That’s politically incorrect, it’s just douchebag.” As I try to lighten the mood.
I first met Sally in Sun Valley, Nevada during the summer of 2003. She was one of the employee holdovers from when my family purchased the convenience store six miles from my home. If her shift started at 8:00am, she’d be at the shop at 7:00am and if it ended at 5:00pm she’d be there till 7:00pm chatting with customers, asking after their parents or kids. During the first month of the business, there were daily accounting discrepancies. One morning Sally came to the new owners saying she worked all night to find the problem and was able to build in a process to prevent further cash flow gaps. She never took a dime for these extra efforts.
“You could have fired me, but you didn’t. This is my business too.” I remember her telling my father.
After she left our business, she moved over to a restaurant across from her trailer park. But the gig never gave her sick days, health insurance, or a wage bump during the five years she was there. The restaurant is now closed, and Sally is surviving on food stamps and unemployment benefits. She tried picking up three separate positions, but along with raising her son, Billy, she couldn’t keep up with managing any of them.
“I honestly had no idea how I was going to survive each day. I knew I was going to be late to each job, my health was getting bad because I couldn’t go to the doctor, I wouldn’t be there for Billy, and one day I just locked myself in the closet [at work] and started crying. They called the cops, told my other employees I was bat-shit crazy, and that was it. I now have nothing but my boy and my drugs.”
The mental exhaustion of poverty is natural. As psychologist Eldar Shafir and economist Sendhil Mullainathan point out in their book Scarcity, “One’s mental fortitude and focus can only be stretched so much.” And when genuinely assessing one’s life in poverty they are well beyond that point. Shafir and Mullainathan further note, “people who lack financial stability live each day as if they had pulled an all-nighter, with all the exhaustion and reduced mental and emotional capacity that come with it.”
In my time with Leticia, I can clearly see this with each encounter. After a long day of work in June, we meet at Harlem Tavern for a glass of Malbec. Her sister recently suggested she sell her salon to get her son the money for college. She’s appreciates this gesture, but is beaten down by pondering the implications of this offer. “I wish it were so easy to say yes… I want to see life as black and white, do this and then that will happen, but mother fucker it’s all gray and I don’t think that will ever change how hard I work.” (Research backs this up)
In recent years, there is a growing field described as the neuroscience of poverty. The latest findings show that kids in poverty are heavily affected by the conditions that accompany it – an unstable home, noise and environmental pollution, the threat of violence, and a constant state of despair – severely stunt the formation and growth of connections in the young mind.
Moreover, another neurological effect of poverty on a young person’s brain is that it slowly numbs them to pain and sadness. For most people, such instances of grief during their adolescence are rare, but for children who grew up poor many have become conditioned to a constant barrage of loss, slowly sapping their energy or capacity for additional sorrow.
For adults, the learnings are even more alarming. Individuals over the age of 20 living in poverty, as a result of sub-optimal income levels, had significantly less gray matter – a vital brain tissue that supports information processing and judicious behavior. Additionally, there is significant erosion in their hippocampus (key to memory) and frontal lobe (instrumental in decision making, problem solving, impulse control, judgement, and social and emotional behavior). Their temporal lobe, the part of the brain involved in language, visual and auditory processing and self-awareness also suffers.
Working together, these components of the brain are a requisite to navigate through the trials and tribulations of everyday life. As one becomes more entrenched in the cycle of poverty, they slowly lose all these vital cognitive functions and often resort to vices or self-inflicted harm.
I wanted to check up with Sally before I publish this piece. For three weeks, I call her neighbor and get no response. Last Tuesday I get a call from Billy telling me that he recently found his mother lying unconscious in their backyard. He called the ambulance, and after thirty minutes they showed up, but it was too late.
Some would say conditions and events like these are a tragedy. But it was Aristotle who argued, “A tragedy is a representation of an action that is whole and complete and of a certain magnitude.” But our discussion, regarding monetary destitution, isn’t representative of those living in poverty nor does it decode the full texture of this problem. The tragedy isn’t that poverty exists in a country of such colossal wealth, but rather that so many Americans elect to enable and ignore It.
Far too often, the poor are maligned as lethargic and indifferent, when we are the ones too lazy to understand the full context of their challenges. They are tabbed as less-insightful and obtuse decision makers, when it is our narrative about them that is one-dimensional.
A few days after hearing the news about Sally, I get a call from Leticia inviting me over to her kid’s going away party. She tells me that God finally answered her prayers and an anonymous donor provided enough additional funds for her oldest to attend college.
I politely decline, but she insists and tells me, “you family now”. I ask her if I can be of service and immediately she says. “Hell yes. You coming to Whole Foods with me. I don’t want to get stuck behind people buying almond milk and Andre’s girlfriend is on that vegan bullshit.”
In the six months I’ve spent with Leticia, I’ve never seen her so happy. She’s singing tunes of Sam Cooke and Otis Redding as she shops, she’s chatting up the employees handing out samples and gives me a review of the wine selection that would impress any sommelier. Everyone who passes by us gives us that look that we’re not supposed to be here (a few times we were stopped as if we were help).
Leticia wanted to make her son’s favorite banana bread. However, given that it was the week she usually bypasses purchasing bread, she forgets to buy it. As soon as we get off the subway stop, I realize this. I tell her and in an instant Leticia drops all her bags and tears start gushing out.
“Oh lord, oh lord. Why can’t things just go smoothly one time. Just this one time,” she sobs.
In that moment, all I can do is hold her and console her – knowing that the perpetual feelings of agony, frustration, and an overwhelming sense of defeat that constantly weigh her down will unlikely ever evade her.