Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Admit You Don't Like Poor People...,

medium |  In the sociological literature on poverty, there are ample studies and papers about the ways that being poor impacts the brain. Stress, malnutrition, and exposure to the kinds of environmental contaminants that often accompany lower-income neighborhoods (Flint’s lack of clean water or the poor air quality in schools around highways) can have serious neurological impacts on people living on the economic margins.

Less studied, however, is the impact that poverty—seeing it, knowing about it, thinking about it—has on the brains of people who are not poor.

This is also an important area of study, though, particularly as cities and states attempt to maneuver unprecedented wealth inequality and homelessness. Perceptions of poverty (and, as a result, perceptions of scarcity) have substantial impacts on the way we collectively think, act, vote, and legislate.

And often, we don’t bother to examine them.

This is clear in community meetings about new affordable housing or homeless shelters, wherein self-proclaimed “concerned” neighbors begin every testimony with something along the lines of “I care about the homeless! I really do! But…” and then follow their opener with something that expresses an unfounded bias about people living in poverty.

“…I’m worried about increases in crime.”
“…why do we have to pay for their housing?”
“…they’ll just trash it!”
“…how will I explain them to my children?”

These sentiments — which assume that homeless individuals are criminals, that they’re freeloaders, that their very existence is somehow damaging to children — are not based in research, nor do they account for the complexity of socioeconomic status. They are, instead, based on a reaction to poverty and scarcity that is intimately linked to our own survival mechanisms.

Just as humans grapple with implicit biases with regard to race, gender, size, and a host of other differences, it’s clear from the research that does exist, as well as the anecdotal evidence playing out in communities around the country right now, that witnessing poverty and perceiving scarcity creates biases in people who are not poor.

But again, like racial- and gender-based discrimination, cognitive reactions aren’t an excuse for acting on those biases.