Some of the most exciting research in develop (at least in my estimation) is examining the effect of being in poverty on cognitive performance. The research suggests, people who are in poverty are not inherently less intelligent. However, being in a state of poverty has a negative effect on an individual’s intelligence. The mental strain of constantly having to think about finances limits our bandwidth to do other tasks.
For instance, individuals in the US were asked to think about what they would do if they had to pay either $150 (Group A) or $1,500 (Group B) to repair their car tomorrow. Would they a) pay it all off, b) borrow the money, or c) not fix it entirely? They were then given a cognitive task. Among both the wealthy and poor in Group A, $150 was not such a huge amount, and thinking about this question did not affect their performance on the test. HOWEVER, for Group B, the poor individuals had to really agonize over this question. When Group B took the test, the rich did not do different from the rich in Group A, but the poor in Group B did much worse than the poor in Group A. The bandwidth spent on thinking about this question limited their ability to fully engage in the mental activities following this question.
Other exciting research is looking at ways to make the poor’s lives better. The poor are might be given access to better health products, taught good sanitation practices, and given insurance in case their crops are affected by drought. We have a standard set of indicators by which we try to measure this difference. Some of the common ones include income, consumption, food security, reported health, financial activities, and others. While all of these are worthy measurements, I would like to expand the picture.
In my mind, a next step forward in research (and perhaps one I will do a dissertation on, if the idea is still novel at the time) is to combine these ideas. When we introduce new products and services, we should also test if this affects the poor’s ability to operate. When we provide an insurance product, and then ask individuals what they will do if there’s not enough rain this year, is their cognitive bandwidth affected? Will those that receive insurance be different from those who didn’t when it comes to taking a test after such questions. What about those who received governmental health care?
While this isn’t necessarily a new idea in terms of interventions, I think this is a new idea (and one that I think ought to be tested) regarding how to look at what we are doing. A successful intervention shouldn’t just affect external factors. It should also in some cases affect the internal process of individuals, like their cognitive bandwidth and their stress levels. If we truly want to improve the capacity of the poor, and “teach the man to fish”, we ought to do a better job of measuring their fishing abilities after we try.