Does ‘Wrong Mind-Set’ Cause Poverty or Vice Versa?


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“There’s definitely evidence that poverty — particularly childhood poverty — does affect things like persistence, your executive functioning, your ability to control attention, to inhibit emotions,” said Gary Evans, a professor of human ecology at Cornell. “He’s correct in identifying that there’s this link. But I think he’s got the relationships backwards.”

The best evidence for Mr. Carson’s argument comes from his own life. He grew up poor in Detroit and went on to become a renowned neurosurgeon, a trajectory he attributes to his childhood outlook. “I had to will myself to see the opportunities that existed on the horizon,” he explained in a note emailed to HUD staff today, following up on his public comments last week.

His mother, too, had the right mind-set: “She willed me to find a way out,” he writes.

But Mr. Carson and his mother have hardly been the only people who have lived a form of his hypothetical experiment.

“That experiment has been done many times,” said Eldar Shafir, a Princeton behavioral scientist. “And if he knew some of that data, he would know that’s just wrong.”

Some of Mr. Shafir’s work, described with the Harvard economist Sendhil Mullainathan in the book “Scarcity,” suggests that poverty consumes much of the cognitive bandwidth we need to be successful at other life tasks. In experiments, they’ve shown that people who are asked to think about financial problems — or who experience financial strain — perform worse on spatial and reasoning tasks. Poverty, they argue, exacts a mental tax akin to lowering a person’s IQ.

And those mental costs have a way of reinforcing poverty. If you’re worried about eviction, you may forget a doctor’s appointment; if you’re preoccupied with how to pay the bills, you may be worse at making other decisions. That is a very different thing, however, from saying that people who don’t have the right attitude remain poor.


Ben Carson, the secretary of Housing and Urban Development, appeared on SiriusXM’s Town Hall last week.

Larry French/Getty Images for Siriusxm

Mr. Evans’s work suggests that the kind of chronic stress experienced by many children growing up in poverty may damage the parts of the brain where researchers believe functions like working memory reside.

Other related research disputes the idea that public assistance undermines attributes like motivation, another common argument of welfare critics like Paul Ryan and Mr. Carson (he has also said that public housing shouldn’t be too comfortable, lest it induce long-term dependency). Studies of the poor have consistently shown that income much more strongly predicts life outcomes like educational attainment than time spent on welfare does.

Yet another strand of evidence says that the context of where people live, well beyond stressful environments in their homes or neighborhoods, shapes their chances of escaping poverty. One large recent study, led by the Stanford economist Raj Chetty, showed that poor children face very different odds of scaling the income ladder — of achieving the Ben Carson story — depending on where they grow up. Poor children in Montgomery, Ala., for example, are less likely than poor children in San Francisco to reach the middle and upper class as adults.

Looking at an interactive Upshot map done in conjunction with Mr. Chetty, it’s hard to argue that the “right mind-set” is what really matters. “It just so happens that everybody born in Montgomery has the wrong attitude?” Mr. Shafir said. “That’s just absurd.”

A similar logic applies internationally. A son’s adult income is more closely correlated with his father’s in the United States than in other comparable countries.

“What does that tell you?” Mr. Evans said. “What it says is if you’re born poor in the U.S., your odds are the lowest of any Western, economically developed country. That just so flies in the face of our American cultural beliefs.”

That statistic defies the idea that anyone who’s simply willing to try hard enough can escape poverty in America. But it also points to a tension in Mr. Carson’s ideology: Why is there so much more poverty here than in other wealthy countries? Are Americans more likely to have the wrong mind-set? If U.S. exceptionalism derives from particular strengths of the American character, can it also be true that a vast share of Americans — more than 40 million lived under the poverty line last year — lack the will to lift themselves up?

If anything, Mr. Shafir says, the mental toll of poverty can be worse in America than in other wealthy countries precisely because of views endorsed by leaders like Mr. Carson: “That’s part of the mind-set: When I’m poor here, I’m not just poor, I also failed somehow,” Mr. Shafir said.

Mr. Carson’s own story has functioned powerfully as a motivational tale. But that isn’t necessarily enough basis for devising policy. And we would not draw the same conclusions about groups other than the poor, Mr. Shafir said. John McCain’s life story doesn’t imply that veterans who struggle with PTSD haven’t tried hard enough. A cancer survivor’s recovery doesn’t imply that others fighting the disease lack the will to overcome it.

“One of the hallmarks of science is that we are taught not to overgeneralize from a single case,” said Mindy Fullilove, a professor of urban policy and health at The New School, who adds that she grew up in poverty, too. “The case is always true, but there’s always variation. So the fact that he as an individual — or I — could get out of poverty and go to medical school and have successful careers doesn’t mean anybody who’s in poverty could.”

To the extent that Mr. Carson is a man of science, she adds, he should know that.

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