The United States is the richest nation in the world, nevertheless, 2007 Census data indicates that 17.4% of our children live in poverty.  That translates into 1 in 6 kids living in a state of economic deprivation.  These huge numbers of our most vulnerable are growing up in circumstances completely beyond their control; yet, they, and ultimately all of us, pay for the lifelong consequences of this state of affairs.


A large and growing body of research has been devoted to understanding the real world developmental implications of such deprivation.  It is widely believed that poverty is bad for kids.  Genetic and cognitive neuroscience seems to be substantiating that this relationship does in fact impede the development of important life-long social and cognitive skills.  For example: children who grow up in poverty evidence diminished: (a) phonemic awareness, (b) vocabulary, (c) verbal math skills,  (d) control over attention to task, (e) working memory, (f) executive functioning, and (g) incidental learning capabilities (Knudsen, et al., 2006, Raizada and Kishiyama, 2010).  Diminished capacity in any of these areas degrades one’s ability to make the best of learning opportunities provided.


Many folks comfortably blame those in poverty for their circumstances, suggesting that genetic inferiority, personal character traits, or irresponsible choices land poor people in their circumstances.  Some comfortably point at the “culture of poverty” as the culprit while believing that their own superior work ethic and drive for success solely differentiates them from their poor brethren. Despite a plethora of data indicating that this thinking essentially blames the victim, it persists.


Evidence suggests that genes may in fact play a part in this affluence disparity, but, it is becoming increasingly clear that environment plays a crucial role in how those genes are expressed.  Specifically, “some genes are turned on or off, or can have their expression levels adjusted by experience.” (Knudsen, et al, 2006). Clearly environment impedes the development of the important social and cognitive skills described above and thus creates a negative feedback loop that sustains folks in perpetual poverty.  With this knowledge in hand, it is becoming ethically and fiscally necessary to understand the mechanism through which deprivation actually affects brain development.


Cognitive neuroscience, through brain imaging studies, is increasingly providing an understanding of this mechanism.  More to come on this in subsequent posts.  It is equally important to understand whether there are intervention strategies that can remediate or limit the implications of such deprivation.


There are two robust and reasonably well designed studies of Early Intervention Programs for disadvantaged children that do appear to remediate, to a substantial degree, the negative impact of growing up in poverty.  These include the Perry Preschool Program and the Abecedarian Program.  Each of these programs set out to see if intervention has any hope of blocking this negative feedback.  Each study used randomized child assignment and long-term follow up to evaluate the implications of the provided interventions on social behavior and cognitive development. The summary below is from Knudsen, et al, 2006.


The Perry Program was an intensive preschool program that was administered to 64 disadvantaged, black children in Ypsilanti, MI, between 1962 and 1967. The treatment consisted of a daily 2.5-h classroom session on weekday mornings and a weekly 90-min home visit by the teacher on weekday afternoons. The length of each preschool year was 30 weeks. The control and treatment groups have been followed through age 40. The Abecedarian Program involved 111 disadvantaged children, born between 1972 and 1977, whose families scored high on a risk index. The mean age at entry was 4.4 months. The program was a year-round, full-day intervention that continued through age 8. The children were followed up until age 21, and the project is ongoing.


In both the Perry and Abecedarian Programs, there was a consistent pattern of successful outcomes for treatment group members compared with control group members. For the Perry Program, an initial increase in IQ disappeared gradually over 4 years after the intervention, as has been observed in other studies.  However, in the more intense Abecedarian Program, which intervened earlier (starting at age 4 months) and lasted longer (until age 8), the gain in IQ persisted into adulthood (21 years old).  This early and persistent increase in IQ is important because IQ is a strong predictor of socioeconomic success.


See the figures below (Knudsen, et al, 2006) for the data on these programs.


Perry Preschool Data

Abecedarian Program Data


As can be seen above, the positive effects of these interventions were also documented for a wide range of social behaviors. Again from Knudsen, et al, 2006:


At the oldest ages tested (Perry, 40 yrs; Abecedarian, 21 yrs), individuals scored higher on achievement tests, reached higher levels of education, required less special education, earned higher wages, were more likely to own a home, and were less likely to go on welfare or be incarcerated than individuals from the control groups. Many studies have shown that these aspects of behavior translate directly or indirectly into high economic return. An estimated rate of return (the return per dollar of cost) to the Perry Program is in excess of 17%.  This high rate of return is much higher than standard returns on stock market equity and suggests that society at large can benefit substantially from these kinds of interventions.


Clearly, poverty inherently impedes individuals’ potential and renders them less able to contribute to society in a meaningful way. There is ample reason to consider social programs that have proven capacity to limit the negative and disabling consequences of growing up poor. All of us pay a price for poverty whether it be through the criminal justice system, income assistance programs, special education programs, or publicly assisted medical care. Doesn’t it make sense to invest proactively in our children so that we don’t have to respond in a reactive manner after the damage has already been done?


It was once said that “every society is judged by how it treats the least fortunate amongst them.”  I believe that this is true.  Even if you don’t believe this to be true, from an economic perspective, it just makes good sense to halt this negative feedback loop – and early intensive intervention is the key to success.  This will benefit all of us.




Knudsen, E. I., Heckman, J. J., Cameron, J. L., and Shonkoff, J. P. (2006). Economic, neurobiological, and behavioral perspectives on building America’s future workforce.  Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.  v. 103, n. 27. 10155-10162.


Raizada, R. D. S., and Kishiyama, M. M. (2010). Effects of socioeconomic status on brain development, and how cognitive neuroscience may contribute to leveling the playing field.  Fontiers in Human Neuroscience. v. 4 article 3.



I have little tolerance for unabashed patriotism. When you look closely at the facts with regard to important quality of life indicators, the good ole US of A falls short in many areas.  Life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness and unalienable rights seem to apply more to corporate entities than they do to we the people. And freedom now has more to do with economic opportunity in other countries than it does with civil liberties for our own citizens.  Don’t get me wrong, I am happy to be an American.  Thanks to my brave and industrious parents and their forefathers, I have had a steady launching pad and subsequently have done moderately well for myself.  However, I am very fortunate not to have been born Gay, a minority, or poor.  To paraphrase an old Seinfeld episode “Not that there is anything wrong with being any of these,” but the reality is that these folks suffer at disproportionate levels in this country.  And I suggest that this is a direct result of social and economic policies.


Somehow, patriotism has become the exclusive domain of those on the Right who through Conservative policy support deregulation, free markets, hawkish military doctrines, government downsizing and subsequent cuts in social services and regulatory agencies.  Even the Democrats have shifted to the right and this has been particularly true since the Clinton Administration. These policies certainly bolster corporate interests and the financial portfolios of the very wealthy.  But those gains have come at the expense of the vast majority of Americans.  The income divergence between wealthy Americans and the rest of us is no secret.  Charts and graphs, easily accessible, have uniformly detailed the relative economic flat line that most of us have endured for decades while those in the top 1% show skyrocketing and seemingly geometric growth rates.  Meanwhile, policies that may level the playing field for most Americans, have somehow been castigated as “Socialist” and “Anti-American.”  This latter thinking is wrong on so many different levels.


Regardless of the real world consequences, nearly half of Americans latch onto and support the Conservative – pro-business policies that are clearly at odds with their well being.  One important way this plays out is in healthcare.  When it comes to life expectancy, the USA ranks number 37 in the world.  That’s right 37!  There are 36 nations that, as a people, take better care of each other than we do.


In a recent study published in Population Health Metrics on life expectancy in the United States, data regarding life expectancies in every county from 2000 to 2007 shows how U.S. mortality compares with that from other wealthy nations.  The results indicate that life expectancy in the United States has not kept pace with other nations.  In fact, the data suggests that life expectancy has fallen in many counties, particularly in Appalachia and the deep south.   Women in such settings have fared far worse than men.


Here are some of the highlights from the study.  The highest life expectancy for women in 2007 turned out to be in Collier County near Naples, Florida – where women lived on average for 86 years.  In contrast for women from Holmes County, Mississippi the average age at time of death was 73.5 years.  That is nearly a 13 year discrepancy.  Further it was indicated in the report that:

In 2007, life expectancy at birth for American men and women was 75.6 and 80.8 years, ranking 37th and 37th, respectively, in the world. Across US counties, life expectancy at birth ranged from 65.9 to 81.1 years for men and 73.5 to 86.0 years for women (Figure 1a). Geographically, the lowest life expectancies for both sexes were in counties in Appalachia and the Deep South, extending across northern Texas. Counties with the highest life expectancies tended to be in the northern Plains and along the Pacific coast and the Eastern Seaboard. In addition to these broad geographic patterns, there are more isolated counties with low life expectancies in a number of western counties with large Native American populations. Clusters of counties with high life expectancies for males and females are seen in Colorado, Minnesota, Utah, California, Washington, and Florida.


What accounts for this gap and the lower relative ranking among our fellow longer living earthlings from other nation states?   On June 16th, 2011, Melissa Block from NPR – Talk of the Nation discussed the results of this study with Dr. Ali Mokdad, a global health professor at the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington.   Dr. Mokdad noted that: “there are four factors – three are equally affecting men and women in this country.”   He then indicated that the three equal opportunity factors included:  (1) socioeconomic status;  (2) access to healthcare/health insurance or no insurance; and (3) quality of medical care.  In other words, if you’re poor, you don’t have medical insurance, and you live in remote areas with poor medical facilities, with less proficient professionals, you are more likely to die early.  On the other side of the coin, it is true that we have the best quality medical care in the world, BUT, many Americans do not have access to this Tier 1 level of care.  It’s only true for certain pockets of the population who are relatively affluent and living near major medical institutions.


The fourth factor, preventable risk factors (e.g., smoking, obesity, poor diet, lack of physical activity), affects both genders but women and particularly poor women disproportionately.  The study points out that in more than 300 counties in the United States, life expectancy declined over 20 years for women.


It is time to wake up America!  These statistics are appalling and embarrassing.  Look at the the real world human costs of economic policies that create and sustain such divergence.  The most recent recession, clearly the result of financial deregulation and unfettered free market greed, has had catastrophic global consequences that have reshaped the landscape.  Budgetary discussions center around deep government cuts to education and social services – further compromising the very people who have been hurt the worst.  Elimination of continued tax breaks to the richest Americans is absolutely off the table.  And now the Conservative agenda is to abolish “Obama Care?”  Look at the evidence people – its all around you.  Before you buy into an ideology – look at the real world consequences – look at the evidence, and ask yourself how you and your loved-ones are affected.  It scares me that such callus disregard for our fellow citizens is the new chic.

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It has long been known that children from homes at the lower end of the Socioeconomic spectrum do more poorly on intelligence and achievement tests than well off children.  These less fortunate children also tend to do more poorly in school, have increased learning and behavioral disorders, and increased drop out rates.  A great deal of effort has been directed toward understanding these differences, and mounting evidence points squarely at the effects of environmental deprivation.  You might think that this conclusion is a “no brainer,” but, for some time, it has not been so clear.  Some researchers have found evidence to implicate genetic factors for these differences.  Over the last several years more conclusive evidence is pointing at environmental rather than genetic determinates.


Last week I discussed some ground breaking evidence from behavioral geneticists that asserted that environmental determinates play a crucial role in mental ability scores, but only for Low Socioeconomic Status (LSES) children.  I noted that “For [LSES] children, the environment remains the key variable associated with differences in mental ability.  Perhaps as much of 70% of the variance in mental ability is attributable to the shared home environment.  While for [High SES (HSES)] children, genes become the predominant variable associated with the differences in mental ability scores.  Environment still plays a role but much less so.  Smart parents have smart kids unhampered by environmental constraints.


Questions have persisted for quite some time as to what factors influence these differences.  Research to date has implicated variables like parental attention, number of words spoken in the home, access to books, and familial stressors; however, the actual physiological or anatomical mechanisms (e.g., neurocognitive processes) that result in these discrepancies have remained elusive.  You see, many factors have been found to correlate with the underachievement of LSES children, but not until a study by UC Berkley Neuroscientists, did we have conclusive direct evidence of how these factors may actually produce neurological differences that play out in these cognitive, achievement, and behavioral gaps.


Scientists at UC Berkeley’s Helen Wills Neuroscience Institute and School of Public Health report in a study published in the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience that typically developing nine- and ten-year-olds who only differ in terms of SES,  have detectable differences in prefrontal cortext responsiveness.  The prefrontal cortex is the part of the brain that is known to be involved in problem solving and creativity.


In a press release about this study it was noted (Sanders, 2008):


Children of high  SES show more activity (dark green) in the prefrontal cortex (top) than do kids of low SES when confronted with a novel or unexpected stimulus. (M. Kishiyama/UC Berkeley)

Brain function was measured by means of an electroencephalograph (EEG) – basically, a cap fitted with electrodes to measure electrical activity in the brain – like that used to assess epilepsy, sleep disorders and brain tumors.


“Kids from lower socioeconomic levels show brain physiology patterns similar to someone who actually had damage in the frontal lobe as an adult,” said Robert Knight, director of the institute and a UC Berkeley professor of psychology. “We found that kids are more likely to have a low response if they have low socioeconomic status, though not everyone who is poor has low frontal lobe response.”


Previous studies have shown a possible link between frontal lobe function and behavioral differences in children from low and high socioeconomic levels, but according to cognitive psychologist Mark Kishiyama, first author of the new paper, “those studies were only indirect measures of brain function and could not disentangle the effects of intelligence, language proficiency and other factors that tend to be associated with low socioeconomic status. Our study is the first with direct measure of brain activity where there is no issue of task complexity.”


Co-author W. Thomas Boyce, UC Berkeley professor emeritus of public health who currently is the British Columbia Leadership Chair of Child Development at the University of British Columbia (UBC), is not surprised by the results. “We know kids growing up in resource-poor environments have more trouble with the kinds of behavioral control that the prefrontal cortex is involved in regulating. But the fact that we see functional differences in prefrontal cortex response in lower socioeconomic status kids is definitive.”


These scientists suspect that “stressful environments” and “cognitive impoverishment” are responsible because in previous research on animals, these very factors have been shown to affect development of the prefrontal cortex. “UC Berkeley’s Marian Diamond, professor of integrative biology, showed nearly 20 years ago in rats that enrichment thickens the cerebral cortex as it improves test performance.   And as Boyce noted, previous studies have shown that children from poor families hear 30 million fewer words by the time they are four than do kids from middle-class families.


These factors lead to important differences in brain functioning.  As the lead author noted in an interview:  “Those from low socioeconomic environments showed a lower response to the unexpected novel stimuli in the prefrontal cortex that was similar to the response of people who have had a portion of their frontal lobe destroyed by a stroke.” (Sanders, 2008)


One question that arose in my mind as I reviewed this paper was whether something other than SES was responsible for this effect. I asked Dr. Robert Knight this question:


The HSES and LSES kids differed in both prefrontal cortex response level and standard scores on intelligence test subtests [Intelligence data was also collected as part of the study. On multiple incidences LSES children obtained significantly lower subtest scores than HSES children.] Is it not possible that genetic traits (i.e., lower IQ) might be responsible for the lower prefrontal cortex activity level, not SES?


Dr. Knight referred this question to the led author, Dr. Mark Kishiyama, who responded in personal correspondence:


This study was designed to reveal the effects of poverty on brain function rather than to identify specific causes. While we cannot rule out the potential effects of genetic factors, on the basis of prior evidence, we proposed that the primary influences were environmental (e.g., stress and a cognitively impoverished environment). There is considerable evidence in both human and animal studies indicating that stress and environmental factors can contribute to disruptions in brain development. In addition, we believe that these effects can be reversed with early childhood interventions (see also Raizada & Kishiyama, 2010).


The implications of these findings are profoundly important and grim. If we accept these results and do nothing, then we all are complicit in perpetuating the cycle of poverty.  We know that there are important differences in how LSES and HSES children are raised.  Education, training, and intervention programs must focus on narrowing this gap.  I contend that parent education programs like Baby College administered by the Harlem Children’s Zone must must be closely examined and if shown to be effective, replicated on a broad scale.  I also contend that programs like Early Head Start and Head Start should focus their efforts on proven strategies that close these gaps.  This is essential in order to build a just society whereby we all get a more fair shot at rising up and contributing fully to society.




Kishiyama, M. M., Boyce, W. T., Jimenez, A. M., Perry, L. M., and Knight, R. T. (2009). Socioeconomic Disparities Affect Prefrontal Function in Children. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience. 21:6, 1106-1115.


Sanders, R. (2008). EEGs show brain differences between poor and rich kids. UC Berkley Press Release.


Tucker-Drob, E. M., Rhemtulla, M., Harden, K. P., Turkheimer, E., & Fask, D.  (2011). Emergence of a Gene × Socioeconomic Status Interaction on Infant Mental Ability Between 10 Months and 2 Years. Psychological Science. 22(1) 125–133.


Several of my latest posts addressed evidence that challenged some of my long held beliefs about the relative value of parenting style on child outcomes such as mental ability and happiness.   In Ten Best Parenting Tips: But does it really matter? I challenged a recently published study in Scientific American: MIND touting the “ten best” parenting tips.  The relationship between parent reported child outcomes and parenting behaviors was measured using a correlation coefficient.  The author did not, however, control for heredity.  It is well known that genes play out in the expression of personality type and a broad array of complex behaviors.  So why would it not play out in the happiness, health and functioning capacity of children?  If you don’t control for heritability is it not possible that well functioning adults might just pop out well functioning kids?  Well it certainly is!  And might we wrongly attribute parenting style for something actually under the influence of genes?  Yes indeed!


I then explored Does Parenting Style Really Matter? and suggested that the current research from behavioral genetics provides a great deal of evidence concluding that the home environment, as it is influenced by parents, accounts for 0 to 10% of the variance in the personality and intelligence outcomes of children.  Heredity (genes) accounts for about 50% and the child’s peer group accounts for the remaining 40-50% of the variance (Pinker, 2002).


The major problem with the above referenced data has been the admitted narrowness with regard to the age and Social Economic Status (SES) of the participants.  For the most part, the studies on twins and adopted children were conducted on middle class families with little relative diversity.  On top of that, there is a dearth of research focusing on early childhood.  This narrowness limits the generalization of findings across different populations and across age levels.  Clearly, it is conceivable that parenting style will have varying levels of influence on child outcomes across the developmental lifespan.  Over-generalization may lead to faulty thinking and thus very dangerous policy decisions.


Throughout my training and subsequent professional development, as a psychologist, I have been exposed to data suggesting that there is a fairly strong positive correlation between Social Economic Status (SES) and mental ability.  The same is true with regard to academic achievement.  The underlying message had always been that environmental determinates were responsible for these correlations.  Again, the problem with this thinking is that the research upon which such beliefs were formed has largely lacked appropriate controls for heritability.  Correlation is not causation and all that jazz!


So what happens to the data when children across the SES spectrum are assessed using techniques that control for genes?  One particular study from 2003 suggested that “the heritability of cognitive ability in 7-year-old twins was only 10% in low-SES families but was 72% in high-SES families.”  (Tucker-Drob, Rhemtulla, Harden, Turkmeimer & Fask, 2011)  This suggests that the environment, including perhaps parenting style and experiential deprivation, play a much bigger role in hindering cognitive development in low SES children versus higher SES children.  Further research has found similar, although not so striking, SES differences.  Regardless, research within the field of behavioral genetics “suggests that the environment plays a substantial role in the expression of genetic variance in cognitive ability over the course of child development” (Tucker-Drob, et al., 2011).  Regardless, questions persist about the degree of influence SES plays in mental ability outcomes and about what point in time the shared environment might affect development.


In a new study just published in Psychological Science by Tucker-Drob, et al. (2011) the authors looked at the mental ability of 750 twins (25% identical, 35% same sex fraternal, and 40% opposite sex fraternal), at 10- and 24-months of age.  This sample closely represented US population statistics including a diverse cross section of children across the SES and racial spectrum.  And the results were quite different.


At ten months of age, the authors report that the shared environment (the home) played the dominate role in the variance of mental ability scores in all households – rich or poor.  There was very little apparent variation in mental ability attributable to heredity.  At 24-months however, things get a little more complicated.  For low SES children, the environment remains the key variable associated with differences in mental ability.  Perhaps as much of 70% of the variance in mental ability is attributable to the shared home environment.  While for high SES children, genes become the predominant variable associated with the differences in mental ability scores.  Environment still plays a role but much less so.  Smart parents have smart kids unhampered by environmental constraints.


Genes by SES


Looking at ability gains within individuals between the first assessment at ten months and the retest at 24 months, the high SES children made more gains than those from low SES homes.  The difference was modest; however, a child in poverty is likely, simply as a function of SES, to score one standard deviation below a very well to do child on the mental ability test.


These findings suggest that for very young children, environment matters a great deal.  This is particularly true for infants rich or poor; but it becomes much more important for poor toddlers.  Poor kids are more vulnerable to the adversity associated with deprivation.  Many factors have been examined in order to explain this discrepancy.  The author of this current study wrote:


“…compared with higher-SES parents, lower-SES parents spend less time with their children (Guryan, Hurst, & Kearney, 2008), are less able to allocate time spent with children in accordance with their children’s developmental needs (Kalil, Ryan, & Corey, 2010), and are less sensitive in responding to their children’s signals (Bradley & Corwyn, 2002; De Wolff & Ijzendoorn, 1997).”  (Tucker-Drob, et al., 2011).


One particularly illuminating study published by Hart and Risley in 1995 reported “that at age 3, children in professional families heard an average of 2153 words per hour, while children in working class families heard 1251 words per hour and children in welfare families heard only 616 words per hour.   In professional families, parents not only talked more but also used more different words and provided a greater richness of nouns, modifiers and verbs. Parents spent a lot of time and effort asking their children questions, affirming and expanding their responses and encouraging their children to listen and notice how words relate and refer in order to prepare their children for a culture focusing on ‘‘symbols and analytic problem solving’’ (see Hart and Risley, 44 p 133). On the other hand, parents on welfare spent less time talking while they more frequently initiated topics and used more imperatives and prohibitions. These parents were more concerned with established customs such as obedience, politeness and conformity. Working-class families showed a mixture of the two cultures using imperatives and prohibitives while using rich language to label, relate and discuss objects.” (Duursma, Augustyn, & Zuckerman, 2008)  The net effect is that poor children hear 30 million fewer words than do children of professionals by the time they reach their forth birthday.


The implications of these differences are profound.  Replication of this research is necessary, but we also need greater clarification of the environmental attributes that culminate in the mental ability discrepancies.  Should these SES differences stand up to the rigors of scientific scrutiny through replication it will be absolutely essential to invest further in early childhood programs.  Jonah Lehrer (2011)  likewise noted that: “Such statistics have led many researchers to highlight the importance of improving the early-childhood environments of poor children. Economists such as James Heckman, a Nobel laureate at the University of Chicago, have long advocated for increased investments in preschool education, but this latest study suggests that interventions need to begin even earlier. One possible model is the “Baby College” administered by the Harlem Children’s Zone, which seeks to equip brand-new parents with better parenting skills.”


These findings also reinforce the importance of programs such as Head Start and particularly Early Head Start.  It is concerning that these very programs are often the most vulnerable to budget cuts in difficult times.  I can’t help but wonder if we would prioritize early childhood development differently if the masses and our politicians were truly aware of these issues.  Perhaps we should learn more about this and help spread the word to friends, family, and our representatives.  Are we as a society really willing to passively submit to this self perpetuating cycle of poverty?




Duursma, E., Augusta, M., & Zuckerman, B. (2008).  Reading Aloud to Children: The Evidence. Archives of Disease in Childhood.  Vol 93 No 7.


Epstein, R. (2010). What Makes a Good Parent? Scientific American MIND. November/December 2010. (pgs 46-51).


Hart, B. & Risley, T. (1995). Meaningful differences in the everyday experience of young American children. Baltimore: Paul H. Brookes Publishing.


Lehrer, J. (2011).  Why Rich Parents Don’t Matter. Wall Street  1/22/11


Pinker, S. (2002).  The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature. New York: Penguin Books.


Tucker-Drob, E. M., Rhemtulla, M., Harden, K. P., Turkheimer, E., & Fask, D.  (2011). Emergence of a Gene × Socioeconomic Status Interaction on Infant Mental Ability Between 10 Months and 2 Years. Psychological Science. 22(1) 125–133.


Do we all get a fair start?

16 October 2010

I had an interesting conversation with a close family member the other day.  He was struggling to understand why people in the lower echelons of socioeconomic status do not understand or act on their ability to change their circumstances.  He firmly held the belief that the drive to achieve is universal and that we all have the same potential.  Essentially he was convinced that anyone can rise up by working hard in school or the workplace.  Those who do not achieve, he contended, are making an explicitly different choice.  Many refer to these folks as lazy, free loaders and/or cheaters.  He recounted the stories from his days working at the local grocery where people would use their public assistance checks to buy beer, cigarettes and other non essential items.  This is the same story I’ve heard from countless people who contend that public assistance is for lazy people content about, or highly skilled at, manipulating the system for a free ride.  I had a similar conversation with another family member recently, who was enraged about Obama shoving publicly supported health care down the throats of the American tax payer.


We are inherently tribal people and part of our human nature, it seems, is to be on the lookout for freeloaders.  As Jonathon Haidt’s work points out, such vigilance is inherent to various degrees in all of us, as part of the ingroup loyalty moral drive that is fundamental to social cohesion.   Freeloaders detract from the viability and survivability of the group.  This deeply emotional moral position has clear evolutionary roots that remain strong today.


No doubt, there are freeloaders among us.  There are people who scam the system and I am guessing that there will always be those who are comfortable with, or even proud of, their ability to live off the diligence and contributions made by others.  Some argue that entitlement programs enable the freeloaders among us to prosper and propagate.   This may be true for some.  But we need to keep it all in perspective.  To do so there are a number of other factors to consider.


First, isn’t it interesting that we frame freeloaders at the lower end of the spectrum differently than we classify white collar criminals?  Do they not accomplish essentially the same thing?  They illegitimately acquire resources that they are not entitled to.  And I am guessing that the true costs of white collar crime exceed those of “welfare fraud.”  Keep in mind that the major frauds in the medicaid system are generally perpetrated by white collar criminals – Doctors or administrators billing for un-rendered services.  Also think back to the impact of people like Bernie Madoff who essentially stole $21 Billion.  They are criminals indeed, but their crimes do not result in all those within their income bracket as being likewise identified as untrustworthy.  Granted, all crime is bad, but I have to challenge the implications of labeling an entire subset of a population as “bad” because some of them cheat.


Second, isn’t it also interesting that our hyper vigilance for cheaters targets the less fortunate among us rather than the corporations who bilk the system of billions of your hard earned dollars.  Why do we turn our anger against our fellow human beings when corporations like Exxon Mobile get huge tax subsidies while at the same time they are raking in billions of dollars of quarterly profit?  Then consider the financial melt down and the huge bail-outs provided to corporations deemed “too big to fail.”  The costs to our society as a results of welfare cheaters are a pittance in comparison to the impact of the deregulated market-place.


Third, although nobody likes a cheater, when given a chance to do so, and a low probability of getting caught, almost everybody will cut corners or scam the system to save a buck.  And everybody knows someone who works or gets paid “under the table.”  Somehow these folks are given a pass and escape the wrath of the stigma of freeloader.  My guess is, the proportion of people who cheat the system span all income brackets, and the actual social costs rise exponentially and commensurately with income.   The disdain that we target toward the less fortunate among us, I argue, is too convenient and hugely disproportionate.   Part of this may stem from the perception that welfare fraud is more visible to us than is white collar crime.  And while white collar crime is perpetrated by people that look and think like we do (or by faceless corporations), welfare fraud is sometimes perpetrated by people whose faces and lifestyles are different from ours.  We see these cheaters and often hear of their exploits.  I contend that much of what we hear amounts to rehashed urban myths.


The stereotype that many of us hold about the poor is inaccurate and maintained both by attribution error and confirmation bias.  And the belief that many white middle class college-educated people hold – that they alone are responsible for their position in life is reflective of self-serving bias.  Each generation launches from the shoulders of their parents who each launched from the shoulders of their respective parents.   My children are launching from a place that is exponentially different than that of a poor African American from the east side of Buffalo, New York, or a poor Latino from East L.A., or that of a poor white child raised in remote rural Appalachia, or that of white boarding school attendee from a heavily connected affluent Manhattan family.  The educational, social, and economic opportunities across these launching points vary in important and significant ways that shape their perceptions, aspirations, and realities in profound ways.   Heritage, and thus opportunity, play the biggest role in one’s socioeconomic status – although, “the system” benefits from people believing that it is hard work and intelligence that drives wealth distribution.  Believing the American Dream keeps the masses contented.  It keeps people striving, believing that they can rise up if only they are smart enough and diligent enough.   A significant part of our population has figured this out – they are the disenfranchised.  Without hope or opportunity it is hard to buy into the myth that one can rise out of the ghetto by working hard.  It’s difficult to continually swim against the current; and for the fortunate, it is sometimes hard to see that there is in fact a current when one is floating along with it.