Poverty and Cognitive Function

It was another odd intersection of work and media for me last week. Let me start with some workplace observations. For the last five or six years, I have served on my university’s Academic Standards committee. The committee adjudicates dismissal hearings for students who have had academic difficulties. Typically, students who don’t perform well will go through a semester or two on academic probation before being suspended from the university. Depending on mitigating circumstances, the Academic Standards committee may rule that a student deserves a second chance and will reverse an academic suspension. While many of the students who are dismissed lack the maturity or self-discipline for collegiate work, it’s not always the case. During my tenure on the committee, I’ve heard all sorts of heart breaking stories involving illnesses, death, assault and so much more. It’s a difficult committee on which to serve.

We had academic hearings last week and it usually causes me to reflect on my work on campus and whether we as an institution are doing enough to support students who have encountered academic challenges. Looking back over the cases we adjudicated last week, I remember several students who were juggling jobs to pay for school and tuition and to maintain a decent quality of life. Although many of these students were probably receiving financial aid, it wasn’t enough to cover their schooling and life expenses. Throw in the academic challenges from their collegiate classes and these students had a lot on their plates. As our committee meets with these students and discusses their futures, we usually recommend that the students dedicate more time to schooling and reduce their work hours when they return to school. It has always seemed like a pretty reasonable recommendation, but now I’m not so sure.

My doubt comes from a study I heard on the Freakonomics podcast last Friday. The research studied 464 sugar cane farmers over a harvest season and the impacts that changing states of wealth had on the farmers’ “cognitive capacity.” Sugar cane farmers harvest their crops once a year and they’re usually the wealthiest immediately after their harvest. As the year progresses, however, the farmers gradually become poorer until they’re barely making ends meet as they ready to harvest their crops again.  The researchers wondered what impacts these financial changes would have on the farmers intellectual ability. To study this, the researchers administered several cognitive tests pre-harvest and post-harvest and surprisingly found statistically significant differences.  The authors write:

“We found that the same farmer shows diminished cognitive performance before harvest, when poor, as compared with after harvest, when rich. This cannot be explained by differences in time available, nutrition, or work effort. Nor can it be explained with stress. Although farmers do show more stress before harvest, that does not account for diminished cognitive performance. Instead, it appears that poverty itself reduces cognitive capacity.”

This study has forced me to re-evaluate my work on the Academic Standards committee and some of the recommendations we’ve made. I know that poverty is a complex issue and lots of smart people have dedicated their careers developing policies to combat it. I worry, however, whether colleges and universities (or ANY school, for that matter) has done enough to recognize and overcome the educational impacts that poverty can cause. While “reducing work hours” may sound like good advice, it’s difficult to defend if it may actually be causing economic hardships that further “diminishes cognitive performance” for students.

References:
Mani, A., Mullainathan, S., Shafir, E., & Zhao, J. (2013). Poverty impedes cognitive function. Science, 341(6149), 976-980.

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