Ben Carson announced Wednesday that poverty is a state of mind.
“I think poverty to a large extent is also a state of mind,” the Housing secretary said during an interview with Armstrong Williams on SiriusXM. “You take somebody that has the right mindset, you can take everything from them and put them on the street and I guarantee in a little while they’ll be right back up there.”
This is incredible news for the 16 million American households that suffer from food insecurity, or the hundreds of thousands who have no roof over their heads. Malnutrition is just a mind-set! Homelessness is where the heart is! If you can visualize a well-stocked fridge, an affordable apartment, and an abundance of stable, well-paying jobs for someone with your skill set, then those things will immediately come into existence.
In all seriousness, there is a sense in which Carson’s claim is accurate: Poverty does shape the human mind. Material deprivation in childhood has been linked to depression and abnormal brain development. As Erika Hayasaki wrote for Newsweek in 2016:
Two recent influential reports cracked open a public conversation on the matter. In one, researchers found that impoverished children had less gray matter — brain tissue that supports information processing and executive behavior — in their hippocampus (involved in memory), frontal lobe (involved in decision making, problem solving, impulse control, judgment, and social and emotional behavior) and temporal lobe (involved in language, visual and auditory processing and self-awareness). Working together, these brain areas are crucial for following instructions, paying attention and overall learning — some of the keys to academic success.
The study, published in JAMA Pediatrics in 2015, examined 389 people between 4 and 22 years old. A quarter of the participants came from homes well below the federal poverty level ($24,230 annual income for a family of four in 2016). Children from the poorest backgrounds showed greater diminishment of gray matter and scored lower on standardized tests.
The second key study, published in Nature Neuroscience, also in 2015, looked at 1,099 people between ages 3 and 20, and found that children with parents who had lower incomes had reduced brain surface areas in comparison to children from families bringing home $150,000 or more a year.
Do impoverished people sometimes develop self-defeating attitudes and habits that exacerbate their unearned disadvantages? Sure. And if Ben Carson were merely proposing to subject America’s poor to condescending motivational speeches, his emphasis on personal agency would be less loathsome.
But he isn’t. The Housing secretary isn’t just encouraging the destitute to take life by the horns — he is arguing that the government should force them to do so, by making public housing less accessible and more uncomfortable. The Trump administration’s proposed budget cuts billions in federal funding for public housing.
Poverty is a mind-set, in that material want affects the human mind in negative ways. If we want to eliminate that mind-set, we should eliminate poverty. It wouldn’t be hard to do, if we really wanted to.