What’s the solution for poverty? Money.

I can feel the collective conservative eye roll but… It’s true. People are not poor simply because they made bad choices, didn’t get enough schooling, got a neck tattoo, wear sagging pants/tights as leggings, had fiddy-leben babies, got in trouble with the law. They’re poor because they don’t have enough money to get by. And here’s some science to back it up, courtesy of the New York Times’ “Great Divide” series.

1996. Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians opens N.C. casino and decides to divide profits with its members. Epidemiologist from Duke wonders whether the money – direct payments to the families – will improve psychiatric outcomes among the kids. It did and there was more. Writes Moises Velasquez-Manoff:

What precisely did the income change? Ongoing interviews with both parents and children suggested one variable in particular. The money, which amounted to between one-third and one-quarter of poor families’ income at one point, seemed to improve parenting quality.

Vickie L. Bradley, a tribe member and tribal health official, recalls the transition. Before the casino opened and supplements began, employment was often sporadic. Many Cherokee worked “hard and long” during the summer, she told me, and then hunkered down when jobs disappeared in the winter. The supplements eased the strain of that feast-or-famine existence, she said. Some used the money to pay a few months’ worth of bills in advance. Others bought their children clothes for school, or even Christmas presents. Mostly, though, the energy once spent fretting over such things was freed up. That “helps parents be better parents,” she said.

Freed up mental energy = cognitive bandwidth, as detailed in one of my favorite books: Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much. (Get your nerd on and read it.) Back to Velasquez-Manoff:

When Professor [Jane] Costello published her first study, in 2003, the field of mental health remained on the fence over whether poverty caused psychiatric problems, or psychiatric problems led to poverty. So she was surprised by the results. Even she hadn’t expected the cash to make much difference. “The expectation is that social interventions have relatively small effects,” she told me. “This one had quite large effects.”

I get giddy when science supports what your gut told you was true. And FWIW, Dr. Martin Luther King and President Nixon both called for a guaranteed minimum income.


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