Poverty A Curable Disease Part II
“We continue with poverty as a disease being describe in medical research terminology that may be a little out of everyone understanding but give great detail as how poverty can be a real disease that’s curable”
The science of the biological effects of the stresses of poverty is in its early stages. Still, it has presented us with multiple mechanisms through which such effects could happen, and many of these admit an inheritable component. If a pregnant woman, for example, is exposed to the stresses of poverty, her fetus and that fetus’ gametes can both be affected, extending the effects of poverty to at least her grandchildren. And it could go further.
Even at this stage, then, we can take a few things away from the science. First, that the stresses of being poor have a biological effect that can last a lifetime. Second, that there is evidence suggesting that these effects may be inheritable, whether it is through impact on the fetus, epigenetic effects, cell subtype effects, or something else.
This science challenges us to re-evaluate a cornerstone of American mythology, and of our social policies for the poor: the bootstrap. The story of the self-made, inspirational individual transcending his or her circumstances by sweat and hard work. A pillar of the framework of meritocracy, where rewards are supposedly justly distributed to those who deserve them most.
What kind of a bootstrap or merit-based game can we be left with if poverty cripples the contestants? Especially if it has intergenerational effects? The uglier converse of the bootstrap hypothesis—that those who fail to transcend their circumstances deserve them—makes even less sense in the face of the grim biology of poverty. When the firing gun goes off, the poor are well behind the start line. Despite my success, I certainly was.
So how did I get out? By chance.
It’s easy to attach a post-facto narrative of talent and hard work to my story, because that’s what we’re fed by everything from Hollywood to political stump speeches. But it’s the wrong story. My escape was made up of a series of incredibly unlikely events, none of which I had real control over.
At age 14, I’d had eight years of trying to teach myself using photocopied handouts, without textbooks, lesson plans, aids, or even a teacher. I was desperate to get out and terrified of winding up like the people I saw around me at the Christian compound. So, I picked up the phonebook and started dialing trade schools, colleges, anything and anyone that might give me a new option. Randomly, unexpectedly, I reached the president of the local community college, Sherry Hoppe. I was probably 12 years old the first time I met Hoppe and even at that age I could tell my story was not unique in her experience.
At that same college, I met Bruce Cantrell, a professor who wound up being like a father figure to me while I was navigating being 15 and poor. He grew up poor too but ultimately did well. We never actually talked about it but we just clicked. A few years later he ran for office and made me his campaign manager. We won and I got a priceless education in the reality of Roane County bare-knuckle politics. I’ll forever be grateful to Bruce and Sherry. With their help, I ultimately got my accredited college degree.
Did I show initiative? Sure. And there have been many people who have interpreted my escape from poverty as a confirmation of some foundational meritocracy that justifies the whole system. But the fact is hillbilly country is full of people just as desperate to get out as me, and taking just as inventive a set of measures. Yes, I am the exception that proves the rule—but that rule is that escape from poverty is a matter of chance, and not a matter of merit.
I have relatives and friends who are as bright and hard-working as I am, with roughly the same kind of educational path or better. But none of them made it out of poverty. One of them also got into community college, but not before he saw his drugged-up best friend kill himself. That proved to be a one-way ticket to a lifetime of emotional problems. Another was lucky enough to attend an accredited public school, learning far more there than I ever did in my Accelerated Christian Education. He ended up a heroin addict. They would not, as I did, find the path to graduation curiously free of obstacles. They would not become, as I did, head of a derivatives trading desk on Wall Street. They are not, as I am, writing about poverty. They are still living it. As of now, I can count around 20 friends and family who have checked out by handgun or heroin. I have no doubt I will add to that count this year
Why do so few make it out of poverty? I can tell you from experience it is not because some have more merit than others. It is because being poor is a high-risk gamble. The asymmetry of outcomes for the poor is so enormous because it is so expensive to be poor. Imagine losing a job because your phone was cut off, or blowing off an exam because you spent the day in the ER dealing with something that preventative care would have avoided completely. Something as simple as that can spark a spiral of adversity almost impossible to recover from. The reality is that when you’re poor, if you make one mistake, you’re done. Everything becomes a sudden-death gamble.
Now imagine that, on top of that, your brain is wired to multiply the subjective experience of stress by 10. The result is a profound focus on short-term thinking. To those outsiders who, by fortune of birth, have never known the calculus of poverty, the poor seem to make sub-optimal decisions time and time again. But the choices made by the poor are supremely rational choices under the circumstances. Pondering optimal, long-term decisions is a liability when you have 48 hours of food left. Stress takes on a whole new meaning—and try as you might, it’s hard to shake.
The standard American myth of meritocracy misinterprets personal narratives like mine. The accumulated social capital of American institutions—stable transfer of power, rule of law, and entrepreneurship—certainly create economic miracles every day. But these institutions are far more suited to exponentially growing capital where it already exists, rather than creating new capital where society needs it. Stories such as mine are treated as the archetype, and we falsely believe they are the path to escape velocity for an entire segment of the population. In doing so, they leave that population behind. I am the face of the self-made rags-to-riches success story, and I’m here to say that story is a myth. The term “meritocracy” was coined in 1958 as a mockery of the very idea of evaluation by merit alone. We’ve forgotten to laugh, and the joke is on us.
It’s time for us to update our response to poverty to take into account the new science that describes it.
Take education. One of the strongest voices connecting the dots from poverty to performance in the classroom and economic struggles later in life is Harvard’s Roland G. Fryer. In their seminal work, “It May Not Take a Village: Increasing Achievement Among the Poor,” Fryer and his colleagues focused on closing the achievement gap between rich and poor through a mosaic of strategies, primarily at school.
But the standard bearer of the achievement gap—math performance—is a symptom and not a cause. When support from well-intended social programs that address things like test scores inevitably diminish or stop, their positive outcomes fail to persist and we grow skeptical about poverty alleviation as a whole. But academic achievement isn’t the real problem—it’s uncertainty and stress. When the 2011 National Assessment of Educational Progress finds no city in America where more than 25 percent of Black or Hispanic children in the eighth grade function at grade level in reading or math, do we blame our schools, or conclude that we lost the neurological arms race long before the children were tested?
We should leverage the lessons of the science of poverty rather than ignore them. Poverty alleviation programs like conditional cash transfers, for example, reward parents or caregivers with direct payment for taking actions, like ensuring school attendance or arranging for preventative care. They encourage stress alleviation and long-term planning that is far upstream of doing well on an exam—they provide exactly the kind of certainty that the poverty-stricken brain needs. In a paper released in June of 2009, Lia Fernald and Megan Gunnar showed that such programs lowered salivary cortisol levels and reduced lifetime risk for a range of mental and physical disorders.12 There should be more programs like these: For example so-called whole-child policies, which focus on the long-term development of children starting from birth while reducing uncertainty during the first three years of childhood development.
Our new scientific understanding of the experience of poverty can also inform medical treatments later in life. In 2009, Michael Meaney, Gustavo Turecki, Moshe Szyf and colleagues took hippocampus samples from suicide victims with a history of childhood abuse and tested for DNA methylation controlling the expression of the gene NR3C1.4 They discovered an increased methylation around the NR3C1 promoter, which, in other studies, has been directly linked to a reduced expression of a protein called brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF). BDNF is among the most active neurotrophic factors, which drive the growth and development of new neurons even in adulthood. And the degree to which it is expressed may be inheritable. A 2015 study linked NR3C1 and reduced expression of BDNF in infants born to mothers who reported prenatal depressive symptoms.13
It may be that BDNF is your best friend if you are an adult and want to change your neurological wiring. It could open a pathway to change brain wiring in exactly those areas that are most damaged by early stress and poverty: the prefrontal cortex, hippocampus, and the entire chain of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal system. Those areas of the brain govern long-term memory, emotional control, and delayed gratification; all markers of individuals that outperform in academic settings in youth and are higher earners in adulthood.14, 15 Low doses of ketamine have been shown to act as a rapid antidepressant, and that impact is directly linked to increased levels of BDNF.16
I would consider trying this treatment myself. But that is not my primary interest in the science of poverty. My interest stems from something else: worrying about the future.
We stand at the precipice if we don’t re-evaluate our understanding of poverty and inequality. The narrative in the neo-liberal west is that if you work hard, things work out. If things don’t work out, we have the tendency to blame the victim, leaving them without any choices. Brexit, Le Pen, and the defeat of Hillary Clinton are examples of the cracks that result from inequality and poverty, symptoms of my childhood experience writ large. The Piketty pitchforks are out, and the march to global disorder can only be arrested by adopting measures that begin to price in the stacked deck that I and anyone else born into deep poverty sees, and resents.
I believe we will see the Italian Five Star Movement submit a referendum to leave the EU this year, and that Marine Le Pen has better than even odds of winning the French election. The EU is in danger of buckling under a globalist defeat and may exist in name only two years from now.
These trends are being accelerated by the blind belief that the poor have failed to seize the opportunities that the market or globalization has created. This myth deserves to be taken off life support—and the emerging, empirical, and carefully observed science of poverty can help us do so if we pay it the attention it deserves.