5 Surprising Facts About Poverty

With multifaceted causes and consequences of poverty, researchers continue to unravel new information that religious groups and social service agencies can utilize to help the poor. Here are five facts about poverty that may surprise you.

Poverty Hurts Your Ability to Think

One of the reasons people in poverty have difficulty escaping poverty is that poverty itself taxes the brain. Research published last August in the journal Science demonstrated that poverty reduces cognitive function by about 13 IQ points.

Poor people must make many decisions throughout a typical day that the non-poor do not have to make. When one has a limited amount of money, every purchase must be thought through carefully. Would it be better to purchase a dozen or 18 eggs, cheap white bread or nutritious wheat bread, canned or fresh fruit? The non-poor more often put these decisions on auto-pilot. Also unlike the poor, they pay bills (typically with auto-pay these days) without having to worry about which bills they can pay and which they cannot.

Being poor takes a lot of thought, which leaves less brain power for other activities. This fact leads to other difficulties for the poor. All other decisions become more difficult when the brain is taxed. So, doing things that the poor need to do to get out of poverty, such as additional education or looking for a job, become more difficult.

The stress put upon a poor person's brain also makes parenting more difficult. Less parenting or poor parenting leads to emotional and behavior difficulties for their children, which makes it more difficult for their children to get out of poverty, thus contributing to a cycle of poverty.

In the U.S., Poverty and Obesity Go Together

While many of the global poor often struggle to get food, the poor in the United States and many other developed nations are more likely to suffer from obesity and its related illnesses, such as diabetes. According to one study published by the American Diabetes Association, U.S. counties with poverty rates greater than 35 percent have obesity rates 145 percent greater than wealthy counties.

Poor Americans have access to calories but they are also malnourished. This is because the cheap food they have access to tends to be energy rich but nutrient poor. Many of the poor live in areas that have been described as "food deserts" because fresh fruits and vegetables are difficult to find in those areas. Instead, they have refined grains and processed foods that have plenty of calories but few of the vitamins and minerals that bodies need.

The reasons for this are numerous and complicated. One cause worth noting, though, is that some of the least nutritious food sources – corn, wheat and soy – is also heavily subsidized by the federal government while more nutritious foods do not get the same level of subsidies.

Global Poverty Has Decreased Dramatically While Inequality Has Increased

In just 20 years, from 1990 to 2010, the proportion of the global population living in extreme poverty has been cut in half, from about two billion to one billion people. Given this statistic, one might assume that the gap between the rich and the poor has narrowed as well. Actually, it is just the opposite. At the same time that one billion people made their way out of poverty, wealth inequality and income inequality increased.

It is not the case, therefore, that the rich got richer while the poor got poorer. Instead, the rich got richer and the poor got richer. But, inequality increased because the rich got fantastically richer while the poor got a little richer.

According to a recent report by Oxfam, 70 percent of the world's population live in a country where income inequality increased between 1988 and 2008.

Poverty Among Blacks Has Decreased While Poverty Among Hispanics Has Increased

The two largest minority groups in the United States, blacks and Hispanics, have gone in opposite directions, according to poverty statistics. According to Pew Research Center, in the 50 years since the "War on Poverty," the poverty rate among blacks dropped nearly 15 percentage points, from 41.8 percent to 27.2 percent. Among Hispanics, though, the poverty rate has increased slightly, from 22.8 percent to 25.6 percent, since 1972, the first year that data was available.

One possible explanation has to do with immigration. There have been more Hispanic immigrants than black immigrants in the past 50 years, and these new immigrants are more likely to live in poverty than citizens.

Marriage Matters, Even For Whole Communities

Researchers have long understood that married couples are less likely to be become or stay poor. A new study out of Harvard found that marriage rates can even make a difference for whole communities. Communities with high rates of single parenthood have less upward economic mobility. In fact, when controlling for other significant factors, family structure was found to have the largest impact on economic mobility.

This means that poor kids living in communities with a high proportion of single parents are less likely to escape poverty, even when they are raised by both parents. And, poor kids living in communities with a high proportion of married couples are more likely to escape poverty, even when they are raised by single parents.