Poverty and Decision Making

I worked as a legal aid attorney for nearly a decade --- I spent 11 years working with indigent and low-income familes in domestic violence and family law.

I came across so many different and interesting people from all walks of life and every corner of this earth.

I also often came across people who made what most people would call "poor life choices." I found myself looking at my clients, trying to understand what had possessed them to act against self-interest, to make short-sited decisions that ultimately backfired. I found myself frustrated as I looked at the big picture in their family law cases while they fought with me over legal decisions because they were focused on the short term.

UGH, I'd say in my office or at home. Why can't they just see the long term goal; why do they insist on being this way, making poor life choices; why can't they be reasonable.

As time went on and I learned more about the effects of proverty and trauma on the brain, I began to understand why my clients behaved the way they did. It did not make it any less frustrating in the moment, but by understanding the "why" behind some of the decisions, I was better able to put cases in a way my clients would understand; to present information and options to my clients in a way they could understand and would ultimately make better decisions.

There are multiple studies now that show that the constant stress of being in poverty has the same effect on the brain as pulling an all nighter (which pretty much any college student can attest to at some point in his or her life). Your brain simply stops working at optimal capacity and your IQ can actually drop. This in turn causes the brain to function at low levels, making complex thoughts nearly impossible and making the person under that stress susceptible to making poor choices. Kind of like how when you're very tired and you know the donut is nothig but empty calories and sugar that will lead to a sugar crash later, but it's there, it's easy so you eat it anyways. For more on some of these studies visit thinkprogress.org/economy/2013/08/30/2555601/living-poverty-effect-brain-constantly-pulling-nighters.

Another study looked even further back into the socioeconomic lives of people -- studying the effects of being socioeconomically disadvantaged on brain development in infants and children. The stress experienced by the parents in poverty directly affected brain development of their children: the parents were unable to spend as much time with children doing homework, access to good education was compromised due to where parents lived (many schools funding is related to property taxes which means poor neighborhoods get poorly funded schools) and more. Brain development in certain areas, including impulse control was affeced vs. non-impoverished children.


Finally, poverty forces people to think in terms of right now, immediate needs -- like rent, food, life necessities (gas, bus fare, medical expenses). It renders people unable to think long term because they are in a perpeutal state of crisis. How am I going to pay rent? How will I feed my child? What am I going to do?

We often hear politicians blaming the poor for being impoverished -- they don't work hard enough, they didn't go to school to better themselves, they should have tried harder. But with the rising cost of EVERYTHING (especially here in the Silicon Valley) making due is harder and harder to meet even immediate needs. Which leads to more crisis, which leads to less ability to think long term, which leaves people more susceptible for making less than stellar decisions.

It also teaches the lesson of unreliability. There's the old test of delayed gratification in children involving marshmallows. Kids are given a marshmallow and told if they wait 5 minutes and not eat the marshmellow now, they can have two. Most kids gobble up the marshmallow immediately.

Now imagine if in this experiment, while the child is asked to wait (i.e. asked to make a long term decision) the marshmallow is taken away. The lesson learned is delayed gratification is a joke and they learn to think in just the now, screw waiting. The next time they're offered a marshmallow, they're going to eat it without a second thought to the promised, but not yet existant marshmallow.


After understanding the physiology and brain function that poverty has on both adults and children, I gained a better understanding of my clients and their decision making. It helped me be a better attorney and better advocate for my clients.

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