On the inherent harmfulness of poverty

I just read an article on The Atlantic: Cities called The High Cost of Not Having Enough, which was a follow-up to an earlier article -- both articles are about a recent study that explores cognitive bandwidth -- the amount of attention a person has for any given problem -- and, specifically, the impact of poverty on a person's ability to concentrate and function. (I just tried to get to the actual study, abstract here, but apparently my school doesn't have access to the digital edition of Science, and we have not yet received the issue of the print edition that that article appears in.)

I was thinking, while I was reading the article, that it would be cool if we could take skeptical rich people and put them in situations of abject poverty for a few months, just to show them how that feels.

My next thought, though, was, "No, wait, that would be ridiculously unethical."

I kinda felt like I had been hit over the head with something.  Yes, it would be massively unethical to take someone who is currently above the poverty line in the US, and put them in a situation where they had to live beneath it, for these, and other, reasons:

  • They would necessarily have to be exposed to increased risk of physical injury or illness, while having the best possible care withheld from them for at least the duration of the experiment;
  • They  would likely have to work more than 60 hours a week to keep the home they have for the duration of the experiment, and may still be unable to keep up with all the necessities of life;
  • If they have children, for a complete picture of the experiment, they would still be responsible for those children, who would (unfairly, having been unable to consent to the choice) go through inadequate education, greater exposure to harmful chemicals, a less healthy diet and possibly some amount of malnutrition or even starvation;
  • They may temporarily lose access to vital elements of human survival, like heating in the winter;
  • And so on...

If a group of scientists were to attempt this experiment, it would probably generate some fairly large amount of moral outrage, as it probably should.  No one should be deliberately left in a position of predictable, avoidable suffering.

No one.  Including all the people who are below the poverty line in the US now.

The study found that people living in poverty suffer from stress and distraction due to constantly facing potentially life-or-death problems equivalent to about a 13% drop in IQ.  They said it's like having missed a night's sleep, all the time.

It's nauseating to think that, as a civilization, we allow this to happen.  That some people actually blame people in poverty for their situation, as if, in the poor people's shoes, they'd climb back up to the middle class in a matter of weeks.  I wish we could actually put some of those people into those shoes.  But we can't, because it would be morally monstrous.  Pretty much like the situation we're in now.