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Why Poverty Is Like a Disease
Emerging science is putting the lie to American meritocracy.
April 20, 2017
WN: Deeply embedded in the right-of-centre in my experience is the profound myth of meritocracy. Wherever it has taken root, it is a false narrative… We do well to heed the wisdom in the article highlighted below.
As an adult I thought I’d figured that out. I’d always thought my upbringing had made me wary and cautious, in a “lessons learned” kind of way. Over the past decades, though, that narrative has evolved. We’ve learned that the stresses associated with poverty have the potential to change our biology in ways we hadn’t imagined. It can reduce the surface area of your brain, shorten your telomeres and lifespan, increase your chances of obesity, and make you more likely to take outsized risks.
Now, new evidence is emerging suggesting the changes can go even deeper—to how our bodies assemble themselves, shifting the types of cells that they are made from, and maybe even how our genetic code is expressed, playing with it like a Rubik’s cube thrown into a running washing machine. If this science holds up, it means that poverty is more than just a socioeconomic condition. It is a collection of related symptoms that are preventable, treatable—and even inheritable. In other words, the effects of poverty begin to look very much like the symptoms of a disease.
That word—disease—carries a stigma with it. By using it here, I don’t mean that the poor are (that I am) inferior or compromised. I mean that the poor are afflicted, and told by the rest of the world that their condition is a necessary, temporary, and even positive part of modern capitalism. We tell the poor that they have the chance to escape if they just work hard enough; that we are all equally invested in a system that doles out rewards and punishments in equal measure. We point at the rare rags-to-riches stories like my own, which seem to play into the standard meritocracy template.
But merit has little to do with how I got out.
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 the grim biology of poverty. 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.
The standard American myth of meritocracy misinterprets personal narratives like mine. The accumulated social capital of American institutions—stable transfer of power, rule of law, and entrepreneurship—certainly create economic miracles every day. But these institutions are far more suited to exponentially growing capital where it already exists, rather than creating new capital where society needs it. Stories such as mine are treated as the archetype, and we falsely believe they are the path to escape velocity for an entire segment of the population. In doing so, they leave that population behind. I am the face of the self-made rags-to-riches success story, and I’m here to say that story is a myth. The term “meritocracy” was coined in 1958 as a mockery of the very idea of evaluation by merit alone. We’ve forgotten to laugh, and the joke is on us.
Our new scientific understanding of the experience of poverty can also inform medical treatments later in life. In 2009, Michael Meaney, Gustavo Turecki, Moshe Szyf and colleagues took hippocampus samples from suicide victims with a history of childhood abuse and tested for DNA methylation controlling the expression of the gene NR3C1. They discovered an increased methylation around the NR3C1 promoter, which, in other studies, has been directly linked to a reduced expression of a protein called brain-derived neurotropic factor (BDNF). BDNF is among the most active neurotrophic factors, which drive the growth and development of new neurons even in adulthood. And the degree to which it is expressed may be inheritable. A 2015 study linked NR3C1 and reduced expression of BDNF in infants born to mothers who reported prenatal depressive symptoms. It may be that BDNF is your best friend if you are an adult and want to change your neurological wiring. It could open a pathway to change brain wiring in exactly those areas that are most damaged by early stress and poverty: the prefrontal cortex, hippocampus, and the entire chain of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal system. Those areas of the brain govern long-term memory, emotional control, and delayed gratification; all markers of individuals that outperform in academic settings in youth and are higher earners in adulthood. Low doses of ketamine have been shown to act as a rapid anti-depressant, and that impact is directly linked to increased levels of BDNF.
I would consider trying this treatment myself. But that is not my primary interest in the science of poverty. My interest stems from something else: worrying about the future.
We stand at the precipice if we don’t re-evaluate our understanding of poverty and inequality. The narrative in the neo-liberal west is that if you work hard, things work out. If things don’t work out, we have the tendency to blame the victim, leaving them without any choices. Brexit, Le Pen, and the defeat of Hillary Clinton are examples of the cracks that result from inequality and poverty, symptoms of my childhood experience writ large. The Piketty pitchforks are out, and the march to global disorder can only be arrested by adopting measures that begin to price in the stacked deck that I and anyone else born into deep poverty sees, and resents.
I believe we will see the Italian Five Star Movement submit a referendum to leave the EU this year, and that Marine Le Pen has better than even odds of winning the French election. The EU is in danger of buckling under a globalist defeat and may exist in name only two years from now.
These trends are being accelerated by the blind belief that the poor have failed to seize the opportunities that the market or globalization has created. This myth deserves to be taken off life support—and the emerging, empirical, and carefully observed science of poverty can help us do so if we pay it the attention it deserves.
Christian H. Cooper is the former head of interest rate derivatives trading at an investment bank in New York City and is currently focused on raising a global macro fund. He is a Truman National Security Fellow and a Term Member at the Council on Foreign Relations.
Please click on: Why Poverty is Like a Disease
- McGowan, P.O., et al. Epigenetic regulation of the glucocorticoid receptor in human brain associates with childhood abuse. Nature Neuroscience 12, 342-348 (2009).
The highlighted article about renowned whistle-blower Daniel Ellsberg points to again what is utterly chilling, horror-filled, exponentially beyond immoral, American (hence the world's) reality: "Daniel Ellsberg: U.S. Military Planned First Strike On Every City In Russia and China … and Gave Many Low-Level Field Commanders the Power to Push the Button". He has since written The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner. Of it we read:
Shortlisted for the 2018 Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Nonfiction Finalist for the California Book Award in Nonfiction The San Francisco Chronicle's Best of 2017 List In These Times “Best Books of 2017” Huffington Post's Ten Excellent December Books List LitHub's “Five Books Making News This Week” From the legendary whistle-blower who revealed the Pentagon Papers, an eyewitness exposé of the dangers of America's Top Secret, seventy-year-long nuclear policy that continues to this day. Here, for the first time, former high-level defense analyst Daniel Ellsberg reveals his shocking firsthand account of America's nuclear program in the 1960s. From the remotest air bases in the Pacific Command, where he discovered that the authority to initiate use of nuclear weapons was widely delegated, to the secret plans for general nuclear war under Eisenhower, which, if executed, would cause the near-extinction of humanity, Ellsberg shows that the legacy of this most dangerous arms buildup in the history of civilization--and its proposed renewal under the Trump administration--threatens our very survival. No other insider with high-level access has written so candidly of the nuclear strategy of the late Eisenhower and early Kennedy years, and nothing has fundamentally changed since that era. McGowan, P.O., et al. Epigenetic regulation of the glucocorticoid receptor in human brain associates with childhood abuse. Nature Neuroscience 12, 342-348 (2009).↩
- Braithwaite, E.C., Kundakovic, M., Ramchandani, P.G., Murphy, S.E., & Champagne, F.A. Maternal prenatal depressive symptoms predict infant NR3C1 1 F and BDNF IV DNA methylation. Epigenetics 10, 408-417 (2015). Braithwaite, E.C., Kundakovic, M., Ramchandani, P.G., Murphy, S.E., & Champagne, F.A. Maternal prenatal depressive symptoms predict infant NR3C1 1 F and BDNF IV DNA methylation. Epigenetics 10, 408-417 (2015).↩
- 14. Xu, X., et al. A significant association between BDNF promoter methylation and the risk of drug addiction. Gene 584, 54-59 (2016). 14. Xu, X., et al. A significant association between BDNF promoter methylation and the risk of drug addiction. Gene 584, 54-59 (2016).↩
- 15. Kheirouri, S., Noorazar, S.G., Alizadeh, M., & Dana-Alamdari, L. Elevated brain-derived neurotrophic factor correlates negatively with severity and duration of major depressive episodes. Cognitive and Behavioral Neurology 29, 24-31 (2016). 15. Kheirouri, S., Noorazar, S.G., Alizadeh, M., & Dana-Alamdari, L. Elevated brain-derived neurotrophic factor correlates negatively with severity and duration of major depressive episodes. Cognitive and Behavioral Neurology 29, 24-31 (2016).↩
- Haile, C.N., et al. Plasma brain derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) and response to ketamine in treatment-resistant depression. International Journal of Neuropsychopharmacology 17, 331-336 (2014). Haile, C.N., et al. Plasma brain derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) and response to ketamine in treatment-resistant depression. International Journal of Neuropsychopharmacology 17, 331-336 (2014).↩
- Please look at several articles as well on American/Western will to world domination by clicking on "Selected Articles: Western Aggression Backed by Western Media”. The series of articles is introduced thus:
The Western allies never run dry of resources to support their global war of terror and aggression, ostensibly an integral part of their foreign policy. They dynamically legislate laws lest the people awaken. They have the unbending support of the corporate media, which skilfully distorts reality. When will they ever back down from their destructive quest for colonies? Read our selection below.↩
- It continued:
‘For seven months, Tiger Force soldiers moved across the Central Highlands, killing scores of unarmed civilians – in some cases torturing and mutilating them - in a spate of violence never revealed to the American public,’ the newspaper said, at other points describing the killing of hundreds of unarmed civilians. ‘Women and children were intentionally blown up in underground bunkers,’ The Blade said. ‘Elderly farmers were shot as they toiled in the fields. Prisoners were tortured and executed - their ears and scalps severed for souvenirs. One soldier kicked out the teeth of executed civilians for their gold fillings.” The New York Times confirmed the claimed accuracy of the stories by contacting several of those interviewed. It reported: “But they wanted to make another point: that Tiger Force had not been a ‘rogue’ unit. Its members had done only what they were told, and their superiors knew what they were doing. “Burning huts and villages, shooting civilians and throwing grenades into protective shelters were common tactics for American ground forces throughout Vietnam, they said. That contention is backed up by accounts of journalists, historians and disillusioned troops… ‘Vietnam was an atrocity from the get-go,’ [one veteran] said in a recent telephone interview. ‘It was that kind of war, a frontless war of great frustration. There were hundreds of My Lais. You got your card punched by the numbers of bodies you counted.’ Current likely Democratic Presidential candidate John Kerry was also quoted giving evidence before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 1971. He reported that American soldiers in Vietnam had “raped, cut off heads, taped wires from portable telephones to human genitals and turned up the power, cut off limbs, blown up bodies, randomly shot at civilians, razed villages in fashion reminiscent of Genghis Khan, shot cattle and dogs for fun, poisoned food stocks and generally ravaged the countryside of South Vietnam in addition to the normal ravage of war, and the normal and very particular ravaging which is done by the applied bombing power of this country. Nicholas Turse [later author of: Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam], a doctoral candidate at Columbia University, has been studying government archives and said they were filled with accounts of similar atrocities. ''I stumbled across the incidents The Blade reported,'' Mr. Turse said by telephone. ''I read through that case a year, year and a half ago, and it really didn't stand out. There was nothing that made it stand out from anything else. That's the scary thing. It was just one of hundreds.'' Yet there were few prosecutions.↩
- Historian John Coatsworth in The Cambridge History of the Cold War noted:
Between 1960, by which time the Soviets had dismantled Stalin's gulags, and the Soviet collapse in 1990, the numbers of political prisoners, torture victims, and executions of nonviolent political dissenters in Latin America vastly exceeded those of the Soviet Union and its East European satellites. In other words, from 1960 to 1990, the Soviet bloc as a whole was less repressive, measured in terms of human victims, than many individual Latin American countries [under direct sway of US Empire] ("The Cold War in Central America", pp. 216 - 221).What was true for Latin America was true for around the world: massive human rights abuses, assassinations, regime changes of democratically elected governments, etc., etc., etc. orchestrated by US Empire. Yet Americans invariably have wanted it both ways: to be seen as the exemplary "City on A Hill" that upholds universal human rights and democracy, while operating a brutal Empire directly contrary to all such elevated values, and a concomitant rapacious Empire market economy that takes no prisoners. This began of course even before the founding of the United States of America and continued apace, in its mass slaughter and dispossession of indigenous peoples, in its brutal system of slavery on which its obscene wealth in the textile industry in the first place was built. "The Land of the Free" conceit was a sustained con job on the part of America's leaders. It was also apotheosis of hypocrisy. American exceptionalism was/is true in one respect only: it was brutal like no other Empire in its eventual global reach.↩
- A classic instance of this aligning with "just war" is the United States' "war on drugs" as subset of "war on crime", while at the same time the CIA was a major worldwide drug dealer in league with other drug cartels -- all done to enhance American Empire during the Cold War -- and continues to the present. The four-part series mentioned below connects American Empire drug dealing to the current War on Terror, in particular in Afghanistan. This of course is colossal hypocrisy as well. Worse: the series posits American federal government administrations over many decades as the Ultimate Drug Cartel, with Blacks, Latinos, and generally the poor directly being knowingly poisoned en masse. Then they have been primary targets of the Drug Enforcement Agency, and thereby become victims of America's too often savage prison system that oppresses and brutalizes them all over again... See: "The War on Drugs Is a Failure, So [Attorney General] Jeff Sessions Is All for It". A citation from the article reads:
In June , the History Channel aired a four-part documentary series called America’s War on Drugs.” The series asserts that the war on drugs was actually a war of drugs—and that the CIA was essentially a partner in spreading drugs and drug use. The series follows how the U.S. intelligence agency, in an obsession with fighting communism, allied itself with U.S. organized crime and foreign drug traffickers and includes firsthand accounts from many involved. In an interview with Truthdig columnist Sonali Kolhatkar on her radio program “Rising Up With Sonali,” the series’ executive producer, Anthony Lappé, explains why the CIA got involved:
It’s actually a pretty mind-blowing story when you look at the extent to which the CIA was involved with drug traffickers and drug trafficking throughout the Cold War. … If you look at Cold War policy against the Soviet Union, we were locked in a global battle for supremacy, where we have lots of proxy wars going on. … We needed to team up with local allies, and often the local allies we were teaming up with were people who had access to guns, who had access to underground networks, to help us fight the perceived threat of communism. There are actually a lot of similarities between what drug traffickers do and what the CIA does.Lappé elaborates by saying the hypocrisy of the war on drugs has been evident from the start: Secret CIA experiments with LSD helped fuel the counterculture movement, leading to President Richard Nixon’s crackdown and declaration of the war on drugs. The series also explores the CIA’s role in the rise of crack cocaine in poor black communities and a secret island “cocaine base.” In addition the documentary makes the connection between the war on drugs, the war on terror and the transformation of Afghanistan into a narco state and contends that American intervention in Mexico helped give clout to Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán and the super cartels, making it easier to send drugs across American borders. Watch Kolhatkar’s full interview with Lappé by clicking here. Please also see the now classic: The Politics of Heroin: CIA Complicity in the Global Drug Trade, by noted American historian Alfred McCoy. Of it we read:
The first book to prove CIA and U.S. government complicity in global drug trafficking, The Politics of Heroin includes meticulous documentation of dishonesty and dirty dealings at the highest levels from the Cold War until today. Maintaining a global perspective, this groundbreaking study details the mechanics of drug trafficking in Asia, Europe, the Middle East, and South and Central America. New chapters detail U.S. involvement in the narcotics trade in Afghanistan and Pakistan before and after the fall of the Taliban, and how U.S. drug policy in Central America and Colombia has increased the global supply of illicit drugs.To be noted as well is Johann Hari's Chasing The Scream, which tells the tragic tale of America's long-standing offensive against drugs, and the way to end such a war worldwide -- that several nations are successfully embracing.↩