One popular and uncritical assumption about poverty is that it is caused by stupidity and laziness, and simple observation would appear to back this up. It is certainly the case that when we interact with people from seriously disadvantaged areas that we encounter a greater number of people who might be described as highly functioning intellectually disabled. A great many of these people live lives almost completely devoid of aspiration, ambition, and drive. Much of their time is wasted away in idleness and the pursuit near infantile amusement. When we attempt to engage them they quickly lose interest and become either vacant and removed, or irritable and frustrated.
In a good many classroom environments and in other social settings I have witnessed young women and men in their twenties and thirties from backgrounds of serious deprivation, many of whom are parents, display a whole spectrum of behaviour one would normally expect from a mildly autistic child of nine or ten years old. Typically they are barely literate; with chronically short attention spans and little or no interest in the world around them, they can neither spell nor solve the most rudimentary arithmetical problems, and express themselves with a grossly limited vocabulary. It would be easy to leap to the conclusion that the poverty they have in common shares a causal relationship with their mental and physical apathy.
Social researchers are increasingly finding that a link does exist between the two, but not in the direction of indolence and mental sluggishness leading to poverty, but rather the other way around. Children in poverty are often deprived of the cultural and educational experiences provided to other children, and a mounting body of research is now showing that this under-stimulation results in irreversible intellectual damage and becomes a significant factor in the development of intellectual damage. What we are learning from this is not simply that poverty is bad for people, but that it is seriously damaging people’s minds in ways from which they cannot recover.
When we then consider the social problems stemming from poverty; idleness, petty and violent crime, mental illness, and so forth, we can stop blaming the victims. Government, economic, and social policies – together with the indifference of wider society – have created poverty, and so they have put the victims of poverty in an impossible position. People in poverty, due to the struggle for survival, societal infantilisation, social exclusion, lack of access to education and opportunity, and other dehumanising dynamics, often succumb to hopelessness and despair – from which point it is not long before they begin to lose their minds.