Normative Narratives

Transparency Report: Stress–America’s Inter-Generational Poverty Trap

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The High Costs of Being Poor in America: Stress, Pain, and Worry:

Reported stress levels are higher on average in the U.S. than in Latin America. Importantly, the gap between the levels of the rich and poor is also much greater, with the U.S. poor reporting the highest levels of stress of all cohorts.

Pain, worry, sadness, and anger (reported as experienced the day before or not) are also all significantly higher among low income cohorts than among wealthy ones, while reported satisfaction with life as a whole is significantly lower, according to our analysis of Gallup data:

The cost and pain of poverty in the U.S. less about basic goods like water and electricity than nonmaterial factors: insecurity, stress, lack of opportunity and discrimination.

Stress impacts cognitive ability. Not only do poorer people have less resources to invest in human capital, due to higher levels of stress they may benefit less from every dollar they do invest. This is the stress-based poverty trap.

Furthermore, evidence suggests that this stress-based poverty trap may be inter-generational:

Stressful experiences for expectant mothers can have detrimental effects on their unborn children:

  1. “Prenatal insults,” such as harassment and discrimination, to pregnant Californian women with Arabic names after 9/11 resulted in higher rates of low birth weight babies, according to research by epidemiologist Diane Lauderdale. Babies who gestated in the weeks after 9/11 and who were given distinctive, Arabic names experienced a two-fold increase in underweight births compared to those who gestated before. Babies born to mothers with non-Arabic names experienced no such effect.
  2. Children in utero during a 40-day ice storm crisis in Québec  had lower scores on tests of vocabulary and psychological measures at age 5.
  3. Using the timing of Ramadan as a natural experiment, economists Douglas Almond and Bhashkar Mazumder find persistent effects of prenatal fasting on disability outcomes as an adult.


Why? One strong possibility is that mothers send biological signals to their fetuses, providing information about the outside world and thereby helping prioritize different aspects of fetal development. Some scientists now believe this process actually alters which genes get “switched on” in newborns.


Are We All “Born Equal”?

Ideally, people would only have children when they are financially secure and emotionally ready. In reality this is not the case, and I for one cannot think of a way of achieving this ideal without grossly invading peoples privacy. Given this reality, how can we reduce stress levels in pregnant women?

One obvious past-due reform is legislating paid maternity leave. The U.S. is the only developed country in the world that does not mandate paid maternity leave. Considering the potential link between maternal and fetal stress levels, perhaps maternity leave should begin earlier in pregnancy. This is not only a women’s rights issue, it is a social mobility issue as well.

Other avenues for progress could be informational. Poorer women are less likely to use contraception or have abortions. Abortions are also less common among poorer women, reflecting both the cost and perhaps the percieved stigma surrounding the practice (a source of stress itself). In  “Freakonomics” Steve Dubner and Steve Levner attribute dropping crime rates in the 90s primarily to the legalization of abortions in the 70s (Roe v. Wade). While abortion may be controvertial, the effects of having unwanted children are far more costly to society.   

When considering intentional pregnancy, it is common knowledge that women take great care concerning what they ingest during pregnancy. However, notably less attention is paid to stress levels. Should doctors be informing women about the impact of stress on their unborn children? Should they be promoting stress reducing activities like prenatal yoga / meditation?

Promoting equality of opportunity and social mobility requires support at all points in life. Some people need support from birth throughout young-adulthood, others need retraining later in life, while others at certain intervals in-between. This is why we see so many different programs and proposals targeting different age cohorts: universal pre-K, subsidized meals / greater school choice in primary and secondary schools, free community college / Pell Grants / “student bill of rights“.

While it may be ideal to promote policies that reduce everyone’s insecurity, early intervention is less politically contentious. A growing body of evidence suggests the earlier the intervention, the greater the “return on investment”. Furthermore, one cannot reasonably appeal to the  “personal accountability” argument when opposing welfare programs targeting unborn / young children.

Promoting equality of opportunity and social mobility are undoubtedly difficult and expensive, but they are at the root of the American Dream. Furthermore, enabling everyone to realize their full potential spurs innovation and economic growth, and would save money later in life on welfare and criminal justice spending.

As the natural and social sciences advance and become more cooperative, insights such as this will continue to present themselves. As Americans, it is up to us to reject anti-intellectualism and false budgetary restraints, and elect leaders who will turn these insights into effective public policies.

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One thought on “Transparency Report: Stress–America’s Inter-Generational Poverty Trap

  1. Pingback: Economic Outlook: The High Cost(S) of Being Poor | Normative Narratives

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