Arnold Kling  

More on Mental Health and Poverty

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Bryan wrote,


When someone asks me what I would do to eliminate poverty in America, the first thing that pops into my head is the need for industry, thrift, and prudence.

It seems that he and I share a common theory of poverty. Ted K. Bradshaw writes,

The first example is based on theories that poverty is perpetuated by individual or family irresponsibility which should be stopped by stiff penalties; the second example addresses subcultures of poverty and tries to acculturate poor children in mainstream values; the third sees poverty not as an individual problem but a social one that needs to be addressed politically and structurally; the fourth addresses regional or geographic concentrations of poverty through spatially targeted benefits; and the final addresses poverty in a comprehensive and cumulative way. Each example reflects a different theory of what causes poverty and how to address it.

...Ironically, neo-classical economics reinforces individualistic sources of poverty. The core premise of this dominant paradigm for the study of the conditions leading to poverty is that individuals seek to maximize their own well being by making choices and investments, and that (assuming that they have perfect information) they seek to maximize their well being. When some people choose short term and low-payoff returns, economic theory holds the individual largely responsible for their individual choices--for example to forego college education or other training that will lead to better paying jobs in the future.


Bradshaw and many anti-poverty advocates see people like Bryan and me as wanting to punish the poor in order to get them to change. Actually, it seems to me that Bryan's view is that we should accept them as they are. So if someone has poor impulse control, you just accept this as an individual trait, and realize that poverty is a likely consequence.

My guess is that a lot of people with poor impulse control would actually like to be less impulsive. That is, if you had a safe, reliable pill that would address their impulsiveness without harmful side effects, many of them would choose to take it.

But a good general question to ask is this: is there a set of mental and emotional characteristics which could guarantee that someone would not face poverty, regardless of other conditions (poverty of parents, quality of local public schools, ethnic prejudice, etc.)? My guess would be "yes." If you agree, how would you articulate what the sufficient set of characteristics would be?



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The author at The Free Thinker in a related article titled The Economic Function of Religion writes:
    Arnold Kling, arguing that mental problems are the main cause of poverty, writes that:My guess is that a lot of people with poor impulse control would actually like to be less impulsive. That is, if you had a safe, reliable [Tracked on February 27, 2007 11:41 PM]
COMMENTS (10 to date)
Bob Knaus writes:

Depends on what you mean by "guarantee" and "poverty."

If you mean "guaranteed in any society other than the richest" to not face "absolute poverty" then only one characteristic is required: the gumption to emigrate to a more prosperous society. As has been noted on this blog before, a Somali will experience a 20x increase in income by simply coming to the US and getting a job.

If you mean "guaranteed in the US" to not face "relative poverty" then the answer is more complicated. My family had all the characteristics that one would associate with non-poverty (hard working, religious, supportive and non-poor parents, etc.) and yet I was born in a trailer in the woods. We were poor, for a while. Then we got over it by the time I was 6 or 7.

Brad writes:
is there a set of mental and emotional characteristics which could guarantee that someone would not face poverty, regardless of other conditions (poverty of parents, quality of local public schools, ethnic prejudice, etc.)?

You have to remember that mental and emotional characteristics are partially conditioned by the poverty of parents, etc. Poor people may be poor because they're lazy and stupid, but they could lazy and stupid because their parents were also poor, lazy and stupid.

I'm not sure how meaningful it is to completely separate these things.

Steve Sailer writes:

In my experience, mental illness is quite common, and can be the cause of poverty.

We have some moderately effective psychiatric drugs now -- mostly SSRIs -- many of which, like Prozac, are now generic (fluoxentine), so the cost of relieving depression can be fairly low, although they still take a good psychiatrist to assess the situation.

Mike writes:

Not to get into semantics, but as others have pointed out, the proper start of this discussion should be what are the causes of prosperity? And what are the set of emotional and mental characteristics which could guarantee that someone will become prosperous regardless of other conditions.

My belief is that two characteristics dominate: first is someone's willingness to "eat the flan" as my brother and I like to say. (We dislike flan). You just have to buck up and do things that you don't like. I absolutely hated graduate school, but I knew the credential would be useful to me. I absolutely hate saving for my children's college education, especially since I dislike what is going on at many colleges, but I save nonetheless. I really get bothered by having to learn sophisticated economic models, but in order for me to remain useful in my current job I need to stay at the frontier, etc.

Second, I think envy is a large obstancle to progress. I think I suffer from it. Out of undergrad, I was a banker, but after 2 or so years I quit because I wanted more out of life (like seeing my kids and enjoying my life while I am alive). Now, I see my old friends making multiple millions of dollars and I can't help but feel like I made a bad decision. My tendency is to feel sorry for myself now that my family and I live paycheck to paycheck. I could easily see how that feeling would make me fall into a state of despair. I'll never have the multi-acred country estate, or the money for fun vacations, etc. and I could see how that realization may make it hard for people to want to work hard to "just get by" every day.

Horatio writes:

Treatments for mental illness would certainly do a lot to alleviate homelessness, but I do not believe they would do much for poverty in general. I grew up in poverty, in a housing project in the South Bronx. From my experience, mental illness has very little to do with poverty. A culture of laziness and the structure of welfare programs that lower the MPL and artificially inflate utility at the lower end of labor are far more important.

Michael Sullivan writes:

But a good general question to ask is this: is there a set of mental and emotional characteristics which could guarantee that someone would not face poverty, regardless of other conditions (poverty of parents, quality of local public schools, ethnic prejudice, etc.)? My guess would be "yes." If you agree, how would you articulate what the sufficient set of characteristics would be?

guarantee? That's a tall order. If you stipulate that the person lives in a society that is wealthy and relatively liberal (on the order of US or Europe) and where class and ethnic prejudice is relatively limited (i.e. not considerably worse than it is here now -- 1950 for blacks in the US wouldn't qualify), and that "poverty" means *permanent* poverty, then I agree there is probably some set of characteristics that would qualify. But pretty much anybody could end up in poverty for a while if they hit too many catastrophic events. And in fact, I'm not even sure permanent poverty is out of the question for completely random factors involving health difficulties. If you start with nothing and get hit with a major chronic medical problem early in life (before you've saved much money) that kills your ability to do your job (so you lose your health insurance or never can get it, you are probably up shit's creek without a paddle unless you have a very high IQ and education level.

If we could have permanent catastrophic medical insurance, the bar would be much lower. As it is, I'm not completely certain that I meet it, where if disabling chronic medical problems were not an issue, pretty much anybody capable of graduating high school who isn't depressed would probably qualify.

Of course "ability to get through high school" and "not depressed" are a much higher bar if you grow up poor and facing ethnic or racial prejudice, than if you're born a middle class wasp.

MattC writes:

The belief that your condition can be changed through personal action.

The belief that tomorrow will be better.

Discipline to do the hard/boring/hated things that are necessary.

"Nothing in the world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination are omnipotent. The slogan 'press on' has solved and always will solve the problems of the human race." ~ Calvin Coolidge

Christina writes:

To the extent that you believe that life happens _to_ you, regardless of your actions, is the extent to which you will be trapped in poverty.

The culture of victimization is pervazive among the poor, which is why they are poor.

It doesn't help with liberal elites reinforce that notion with their condescending "compassion."

another bob writes:

sorry, no guarantees. and you still have to "eat the flan".

although, personnally, i love flan. also, i love calculus and probability and complicated economic models ;-)

Eric H writes:

"My guess is that a lot of people with poor impulse control would actually like to be less impulsive. That is, if you had a safe, reliable pill that would address their impulsiveness without harmful side effects, many of them would choose to take it."

Isn't that pill called by Sunstein, "Libertarian Paternalism"?

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