Poverty Sucks! The Pope, Research, and Fatherhood The Pope –Guest Post by Dave McClow.

The following is a guest post by Pastoral Solutions Institute clinical pastoral counseling associate, Dave McClow, MDiv, LCSW, LMFT.

The Pope

It seems that Pope Francis’ favorite topic is the poor.  His new Apostolic Exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium, The Joy of Evangelism, is not even the latest evidence, because every other homily or statement includes the poor.  And it is right “the poor are the privileged recipi­ents of the Gospel” (EG, 48).  They are the summit in kingdom ethics; they are where we meet Jesus— ‘Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me.’ (Mt. 25:40).  They are to be the first and the focus of our missionary energy (EG, 48).   Pope Francis is concerned about some of the obstacles in our spiritual lives that are obstacles to loving the poor:

Whenever our interior life [I would add our exterior life here at Christmas time] becomes caught up in its own interests and concerns, there is no longer room for others, no place for the poor. God’s voice is no longer heard, the quiet joy of his love is no longer felt, and the desire to do good fades. This is a very real danger for believers too (EG, 2)


And, as if he hasn’t been clear yet, he says, “We have to state, with­out mincing words, that there is an inseparable bond between our faith and the poor. May we never abandon them” (EG, 48).

The Research

So I was intrigued by a blog by Chris Brown, at the National Fatherhood Initiative, titled Poverty Sucks: How Father Involvement Alleviates It.   He pointed me to some fascinating international research on IQ and poverty that helps us understand the poor better:

In a series of experiments run by researchers at Princeton, Harvard, and the University of Warwick, low-income people who were primed to think about financial problems performed poorly on a series of cognition tests, saddled with a mental load that was the equivalent of losing an entire night’s sleep. Put another way, the condition of poverty imposed a mental burden akin to losing 13 IQ points, or comparable to the cognitive difference that’s been observed between chronic alcoholics and normal adults….

This picture of cognitive bandwidth looks different. To study it, the researchers performed two sets of experiments. In the first, about 400 randomly chosen people in a New Jersey mall were asked how they would respond to a scenario where their car required either $150 or $1,500 in repairs. Would they pay for the work in full, take out of a loan, or put off the repair? How would they make that decision? The subjects varied in annual income from $20,000 to $70,000.

Before responding, the subjects were given a series of common tests (identifying sequences of shapes and numbers, for example) measuring cognitive function and fluid intelligence. In the easier scenario, where the hypothetical repair cost only $150, subjects classified as “poor” and “rich” performed equally well on these tests. But the “poor” subjects performed noticeably worse in the $1,500 scenario. Simply asking these people to think about financial problems taxed their mental bandwidth.

“And these are not people in abject poverty,” Shafir says. “These are regular folks going to the mall that day.”

The “rich” subjects in the study experienced no such difficulty. In the second experiment, the researchers found similar results when working with a group of farmers in India who experience a natural annual cycle of poverty and plenty. These farmers receive 60 percent of their annual income in one lump sum after the sugarcane harvest. Beforehand, they are essentially poor. Afterward (briefly), they’re not. In the state of pre-harvest poverty, however, they exhibited the same shortage of cognitive bandwidth seen in the American subjects in a New Jersey mall.

Putting aside the problem of defining the rich as making $70,000 per year (…who knew?), it is interesting that cognitive bandwidth or functioning goes down when faced with the stress of an overwhelming financial problem.  The researcher’s methodology gives a new way to measure interventions with poor.  Obviously handing out $1500 to get the car fixed seems like it would help!

But I wonder how a supportive, caring relationship would impact this.  The interpersonal neurobiology field would suggest that it would.  We are designed to connect with others when we have big emotions and stress.  It is patently obvious with babies.  You have to pick up the baby to calm the little bugger down, that is if you don’t want to overload him or her with stress hormones.  Of course you will want to make sure the baby isn’t hungry, or check for a loaded diaper or some other problem first.  But physical contact and a soothing voice help calm the vagus nerve in the body and release all kinds of natural narcotics in the brain, calming the baby.  We are no different, except hopefully we have given up the diaper thing.  Caring, supportive relationships help the different parts of the brain to integrate.  Brain integration helps us be sane and is a good definition of mental health (see Dr. Greg’s post on the 9 components of mental health).  Relationships that are patterned, repetitive, and predictable in an accepting and loving way create security.  In adults, being in a state of relative calm allows the prefrontal cortex to be online, and that means the intellect, the ability to see consequence (conscience), and the ability to have empathy are all online. So I wonder if caring, supportive relationships would increase the IQ when facing these kinds of financial situations.



One kind of relationship is extremely important to alleviate poverty, as noted by Chris Brown at the National Fatherhood Initiative, and that is the father/child relationship:

But it’s not enough just to have fathers present in their children’s lives. They must be involved, responsible, committed fathers….

Father involvement is a vital part of the solution to poverty and the chronic stress and poor parenting it creates. We know, from a macrolevel perspective, that communities with higher levels of father absence have higher levels of poverty. We also know, from a microlevel perspective—and common sense, that an involved father provides the human capital families need to perform the parenting functions that parents, children, and families need to avoid chronic stress and thrive.  

So fathers are key in alleviating poverty!  Wouldn’t it be nice if radical feminism and politicians would figure this out!


And even if the research never supports that having caring, supportive relationships do increase IQ in the poor, Jesus, Pope Francis, and the Church command us to love our neighbor, especially the poor.

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