Tag Archives: genetics

Can Poverty Change You Genetically?

This is a fascinating article, written by a former investment manager and current Truman National Security Fellow, who escaped abject poverty in Appalachia, that looks at the early (as of now) research showing the potential link between poverty and genetics. Basically, the stress of poverty might change your body in a way that can be passed to your children and grandchildren.

Even at this stage, then, we can take a few things away from the science. First, that the stresses of being poor have a biological effect that can last a lifetime. Second, that there is evidence suggesting that these effects may be inheritable, whether it is through impact on the fetus, epigenetic effects, cell subtype effects, or something else.

This science challenges us to re-evaluate a cornerstone of American mythology, and of our social policies for the poor: the bootstrap. The story of the self-made, inspirational individual transcending his or her circumstances by sweat and hard work. A pillar of the framework of meritocracy, where rewards are supposedly justly distributed to those who deserve them most.

What kind of a bootstrap or merit-based game can we be left with if poverty cripples the contestants? Especially if it has intergenerational effects? The uglier converse of the bootstrap hypothesis—that those who fail to transcend their circumstances deserve them—makes even less sense in the face of poverty epigenetics. When the firing gun goes off, the poor are well behind the start line. Despite my success, I certainly was…

Why do so few make it out of poverty? I can tell you from experience it is not because some have more merit than others. It is because being poor is a high-risk gamble. The asymmetry of outcomes for the poor is so enormous because it is so expensive to be poor. Imagine losing a job because your phone was cut off, or blowing off an exam because you spent the day in the ER dealing with something that preventative care would have avoided completely. Something as simple as that can spark a spiral of adversity almost impossible to recover from. The reality is that when you’re poor, if you make one mistake, you’re done. Everything becomes a sudden-death gamble.

Now imagine that, on top of that, your brain is wired to multiply the subjective experience of stress by 10. The result is a profound focus on short-term thinking. To those outsiders who, by fortune of birth, have never known the calculus of poverty, the poor seem to make sub-optimal decisions time and time again. But the choices made by the poor are supremely rational choices under the circumstances. Pondering optimal, long-term decisions is a liability when you have 48 hours of food left. Stress takes on a whole new meaning—and try as you might, it’s hard to shake.

As the author points out, this research calls into question the whole concept of poverty as choice, or poverty as the result of laziness, and asks us to reconsider how we address poverty. One thing’s certain: whether or not you agree that poverty has a biological impact, you have to acknowledge that the programs we’ve depended on to fight poverty until now have not worked. Whether it’s because the programs are misguided, or there was a lack of political will to follow through on those programs that exhibited promising results, or some combination of those factors and more, we’ve failed to pull a huge chunk of our population out of poverty and if we want to change that then we’re going to have to make substantial changes. Soon.