We Must Do Something About The Psychological Impact Of Poverty

The Mental Load Of Living In Poverty––Words Cannot Explain

Portrait of Armenian boy
Scary Mommy and Anna Efetova/Getty

When I was nine years old, my father walked out on us. He didn’t pay child support, and like so often in situations like this, my mother was left to shoulder the brunt of caring for three children on her own. And to make matters worse, before dad left, he put a lien against our home, and racked up a bunch of credit cards that were in my mother’s name. I don’t want to state the obvious, but my dad wasn’t a great dude, and he left my mother in a pretty difficult position.

At the height of it all, I can remember her working three jobs. One was at the power company collecting payments, the other was cleaning houses in the evenings, and on weekends she worked at a music store. Often when she came home, she cried. She cried a lot, actually, well into the night. It wasn’t until I was older that I began to wonder how she managed to drag herself out of bed each and every morning and go into work with all the mental burden she was carrying day in, and day out. And according to a recent study, the mental burden of poverty is very real — and it has a substantial impact on workers’ productivity.

Sendhil Mullainathan, a behavioral economist at the University of Chicago, wanted to know how much the burden of poverty was impacting productivity in workers, so he went to a factory in Odisha, India. The study looked at 408 factory workers, whose job was to make disposable plates used at local eateries.

Now to fully understand this study, it’s important to note that in this part of India, most workers split their year between agriculture during the planting and harvesting season. When that work dries up, many work in the factory for less than they would make harvesting. The researchers chose this time intentionally, because it was when workers would be saddled with the most debt, and the most financial burden.

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The basics of this experiment were pretty simple. They gave a portion of the 408 workers a large chunk of their compensation up front. Here’s a quote from the study: “On average, they were given 1,400 rupees, or about 20 dollars. This was equivalent to about what they had earned in the previous month, and a large fraction of them used the money to pay off outstanding debts.” The rest of the workers in the study were paid at the end of their work period, same as usual.

Then they observed the workers, and the findings were pretty telling. The workers that were paid up front were significantly more productive. In fact, those workers made 6.2% more plates per hour, with the biggest increase in productivity being seen in the poorest of workers. And not only were they more productive, their work was better too. The workers that were paid up front also had fewer blemishes in the plates they made, showing that they were more accurate in their job.

What this shows, according to the authors of the study, is that giving poverty stricken workers money up front released the mental burden of poverty, and allowed them to have more emotional capital available to be more productive and accurate in their work.

If I were to describe my mother in the years after my father left, I would use the word tired. She was exhausted right down to the bone, and it wasn’t just the long hours that were wearing her down. No, it was a deep mental weariness that only comes when you are left to care for children alone both mentally and financially, while also trying to fight to keep your family out of debt. And there is absolutely no way that she could have fully compartmentalized that sort of burden while at work. I think she tried. That’s why she cried so much in the evenings. She must have gone into work and told everyone she was fine, but the reality was, she was not fine. Not at all. And so much of it had to do with the mental exhaustion of poverty.

During an earlier NPR interview with Mullainathan, the author of the above study, he described poverty like this: “Put simply, being poor is like having just pulled an all-nighter.” He then goes on to describe how the emotional weariness of poverty hinders the ability to escape poverty. With that in mind, the overall conclusion of this study was for policy makers to reshape welfare programs with that mental strain in mind. Giving poor people money up front, for example, without conditions, could help them be in a better position to earn more money on their own.

I speak from personal experience when I say that really any relief in my mother’s financial situation would have done wonders for her mental health. It might have kept her from crying most nights, which was heartbreaking. I have no doubt that it would have helped her keep her mind on her job, rather than on her many hardships. And everyone deserves that opportunity.