The proportion of the global population living on less than $1.90 per person per day has fallen—from 18 percent in 2008 to 11 percent in 2013, according to the World Bank. In the United States, however, the poverty rate has been more stubborn—41 million people lived below the country’s poverty line in 2016, about 13 percent of the population, nearly the same rate as in 2007. Recent policy initiatives haven’t meaningfully reduced that rate. House Speaker Paul Ryan (Republican of Wisconsin) indicated this past December that the government would make fighting poverty, but also welfare, which many Republicans believe is a failed policy, a priority in 2018.
US lawmakers have expressed frustration when investments such as welfare programs don’t pull people out of poverty. “I believe in helping those who cannot help themselves but would if they could,” said Senator Orrin Hatch (Republican of Utah) this past December, when explaining his views on government spending. “I have a rough time wanting to spend billions and billions and trillions of dollars to help people who won’t help themselves, won’t lift a finger, and expect the federal government to do everything.”
Hatch’s statement reflects a common view that removing government support would force many poor people to improve their conditions themselves. Without welfare and government assistance, would able-bodied people find a job, get an education, stop buying lottery tickets, and focus on paying bills?
Not quite, indicate researchers, whose work is telling a different story of poverty. Contrary to the refrain that bad decisions lead to poverty, data indicate that it is the cognitive toll of being poor that leads to bad decisions. And actually, decisions that may seem counterproductive could be entirely rational, even shrewd. The findings suggest that to successfully reduce poverty, it would help to take this psychology into account.