EU Science Hub

The experience of poverty: the persisting effect on behaviours, aspirations and mind-sets

Research shows that stereotypes and discrimination can turn into self-fulfilling prophecies.
Research shows that stereotypes and discrimination can turn into self-fulfilling prophecies.
Sep 07 2021

A recently published report of the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre brings in one place existing research and evidence on how the experience of poverty and exclusion over time may affect aspirations, self-confidence and decision-making.

This collection of multidisciplinary insights and practical examples aims to contribute to reflection on addressing poverty in a comprehensive way, and to achieve the right to aspire for all.

Social assistance measures in support of people in poverty are often conceived as temporary safety nets. The expectation is that, sooner or later, people should be able to reach economic autonomy. The report however explains why this may be difficult for people who have been immersed in chronic poverty and social exclusion.

The report summarises findings from behavioural studies, neuroscience, sociology and economic studies showing how poverty impacts behaviours, executive functions, and aspirations and expectations.

Understanding how this contributes to transmitting  poverty across generations may help design comprehensive and effective strategies to support inclusion and social mobility for groups who have endured chronic marginalisation.

This is the case for instance for many Roma (in Europe), but also for many other families and communities who have been in poverty for many generations.

Scarcity, toxic stress, low external expectations impact on hope and decisions

Research shows that poverty (as a form of scarcity) can make people less insightful, less forward-thinking and less controlled, and that stereotypes and discrimination can turn into self-fulfilling prophecies.

Evidence also points to an impact of poverty on some cognitive and executive functions, caused inter alia by toxic stress, limited nurturing and feedback, and unhealthy living conditions.

Quoted studies also indicate that the experience of poverty may be associated to lower expectations, aversion towards risk and less confidence in one's capacity to acquire new competences. This may have cascade effects, namely on performance in education and consequent life chances, contributing to the transmission of poverty from parents to children.  

The report argues that families and communities who have been marginalised over many generations may see such effects multiplied. The cumulative load of environmental factors, and the absence of experiences of social mobility in the family history and the environment, may increasingly undermine aspirations and affect decisions.

Examples of how this knowledge may help programs and actions

The study argues that tackling material conditions – albeit indispensable – may not suffice on its own to help out of poverty people who suffer from prolonged marginalisation.  Rather, overcoming poverty also requires supporting resilience, the capacity to aspire and to take decisions that are conducive to realizing aspirations.

While income support is necessary, not least to reduce stress and create a more favourable environment for children, it should be combined with comprehensive support measures that address the full range of needs in families in a tailor-made way, including long term coaching for economic mobility.

Education may play a pivotal role in enhancing resilience and aspirations. Besides crucial systemic measures for equity in education (preventing segregation and ensuring high quality education with a particular focus on early childhood education and care), it is essential to equip teachers and school leaders with skills to prevent stereotyping, support building of core cognitive skills, and enhance socio-emotional competences. Supporting parents' involvement in education is also of paramount importance.

Measures such as mentorships may help children and young people imagine a different future and get information and support. Step-by step goal setting, coaching, counselling, peer support may ensure that the creation of aspirations leads to their achievement.  

To compensate for effects of the environment, children and young people need safe and positive alternatives, including places where to spend time after school and in holidays and engage in stimulating activities. 

Services have to be designed to compensate for reduced cognitive capacity caused by the conditions of poverty, and include measurement of progress in order to monitor and redirect strategies to increase effectiveness.

The study may contribute to enhancing the effectiveness of social services and of measures (such as the European Child Guarantee) aimed to break the cycle of disadvantage, in line with the principles of the European Pillar of Social Rights.