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In August, Science published a landmark study concluding that poverty, itself, hurts our ability to make decisions about school, finances, and life, imposing a mental burden similar to losing 13 IQ points.
It was widely seen as a counter-argument to claims that poor people are "to blame" for bad decisions and a rebuke to policies that withhold money from the poorest families unless they behave in a certain way. After all, if being poor leads to bad decision-making (as opposed to the other way around), then giving cash should alleviate the cognitive burdens of poverty, all on its own.
Sometimes, science doesn't stick without a proper anecdote, and "Why I Make Terrible Decisions ," a comment published on Gawker 's Kinja platform by a person in poverty, is a devastating illustration of the Science study. I've bolded what I found the most moving, insightful portions, but it's a moving and insightful testimony all the way through.
I make a lot of poor financial decisions. None of them matter, in the long term. I will never not be poor, so what does it matter if I don’t pay a thing and a half this week instead of just one thing? It’s not like the sacrifice will result in improved circumstances; the thing holding me back isn’t that I blow five bucks at Wendy’s. It’s that now that I have proven that I am a Poor Person that is all that I am or ever will be. It is not worth it to me to live a bleak life devoid of small pleasures so that one day I can make a single large purchase. I will never have large pleasures to hold on to. There’s a certain pull to live what bits of life you can while there’s money in your pocket, because no matter how responsible you are you will be broke in three days anyway. When you never have enough money it ceases to have meaning. I imagine having a lot of it is the same thing.
Poverty is bleak and cuts off your long-term brain. It’s why you see people with four different babydaddies instead of one. You grab a bit of connection wherever you can to survive. You have no idea how strong the pull to feel worthwhile is. It’s more basic than food. You go to these people who make you feel lovely for an hour that one time, and that’s all you get. You’re probably not compatible with them for anything long-term, but right this minute they can make you feel powerful and valuable. It does not matter what will happen in a month. Whatever happens in a month is probably going to be just about as indifferent as whatever happened today or last week. None of it matters. We don’t plan long-term because if we do we’ll just get our hearts broken. It’s best not to hope. You just take what you can get as you spot it.
When neuroscientists Joseph W. Kable and Joseph T. McGuire studied time, uncertainty and decision-making, they found that virtues like patience and self-control weren't as simple previous studies suggested. In the ubiquitous Marshmallow study, for example, kids who ate the treat quickly were deemed impatient and kids who waited had self-control and, on the whole, went on to lead more productive lives, the study found.
But rational self-control in the real world, Kable says, isn't so black-and-white. Perhaps you have enough patience to wait an hour for a train, or to lose one pound each week with exercise and dieting. That sounds responsible. But what happens if the train isn't there in 90 minutes? If you never lose weight and you're making yourself miserable with your diet? Maybe you should give up! "In this situation, giving up can be a natural — indeed, a rational — response to a time frame that wasn’t properly framed to begin with," Maria Konnikova summed it up for the Times .
As Andrew Golis points out, this might suggest something even deeper than the idea that poverty's stress interferes with our ability to make good decisions. The inescapability of poverty weighs so heavily on the author that s/he abandons long-term planning entirely, because the short term needs are so great and the long-term gains so implausible. The train is just not coming. What if the psychology of poverty, which can appear so irrational to those not in poverty, is actually "the most rational response to a world of chaos and unpredictable outcomes," he wrote.
None of this is an argument against poorer families trying to save or plan for the long-term. It's an argument for context. As Eldar Shafir. the author of the Science study, told The Atlantic Cities ' Emily Badger: “All the data shows it isn't about poor people, it’s about people who happen to be in poverty. All the data suggests it is not the person, it's the context they’re inhabiting.”
As stars avoid inauguration bookings, the president-elect tries to divide America’s population from its popular culture.
The Celebrity Apprentice president’s latest PR problem is celebrities. For weeks, reports have indicated that his inauguration team has had trouble booking any star performers: “They are willing to pay anything,” one talent representative reportedly told TheWrap after being approached by Trump’s people. The president-elect’s camp have denied that’s the case, but Elton John, Celine Dion, and KISS are among those who’ve publicly rejected rumors that they’d play the swearing-in celebrations; right now, the confirmed lineup of recognizable performers is the 16-year-old America’s Got Talent contestant Jackie Evancho, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, and the Rockettes.
Last night, Trump seemed to confirm Hollywood and he weren’t making nice, tweeting. “The so-called ‘A’ list celebrities are all wanting tixs to the inauguration, but look what they did for Hillary, NOTHING. I want the PEOPLE!” It was a remark that flipped the publicized dynamic (Trump’s team approaching A-listers got swiveled the other way around) for a mix of self-congratulation and insults—a familiar maneuver by now. But the tweet also, tellingly, attempted to draw a dividing line between “the PEOPLE” and the entertainment world, making for his latest divide-and-conquer attempt against American popular culture.
A history of the first African American White House—and of what came next
In the waning days of President Barack Obama’s administration, he and his wife, Michelle, hosted a farewell party, the full import of which no one could then grasp. It was late October, Friday the 21st, and the president had spent many of the previous weeks, as he would spend the two subsequent weeks, campaigning for the Democratic presidential nominee, Hillary Clinton. Things were looking up. Polls in the crucial states of Virginia and Pennsylvania showed Clinton with solid advantages. The formidable GOP strongholds of Georgia and Texas were said to be under threat. The moment seemed to buoy Obama. He had been light on his feet in these last few weeks, cracking jokes at the expense of Republican opponents and laughing off hecklers. At a rally in Orlando on October 28, he greeted a student who would be introducing him by dancing toward her and then noting that the song playing over the loudspeakers—the Gap Band’s “Outstanding”—was older than she was.
The country’s first black president never pursued policies bold enough to close the racial wealth gap.
Over the next few weeks, The Atlantic will be publishing a series of responses to Ta-Nehisi Coates’s story "My President Was Black ." Readers are invited to send their own responses to email@example.com. and we will post a sample of your feedback. You can read other responses to the story from Atlantic readers and contributors here .
Born in 1953, I am a child of the waning years of legal segregation in the United States. My parents, on the other hand, spent about 40 years of their lives under Jim Crow, and all of my grandparents lived most of their lives under official American apartheid. At the time of Barack Obama’s election to the presidency in 2008, my mother and all four of my grandparents were deceased. But my father was alive and well—and absolutely thrilled to have lived to see the election of a black man as president of the United States. Usually deeply cynical about American politics and politicians, my dad could not comprehend my deep reservations about Barack Obama’s leadership. Indeed, he viewed any criticism of Obama as bringing aid and comfort to white supremacists.
The fourth in a series of conversations between the president and Ta-Nehisi Coates
In “My President Was Black ,” The Atlantic’s Ta-Nehisi Coates examined Barack Obama’s tenure in office, and his legacy. The story was built, in part, around a series of conversations he had with the president. This is a transcript of the final of those four encounters, which took place by phone after the election, on November 17, 2016. You can find the other interviews, as well as responses to the story and to these conversations, here .
Obama: Well, I’m doing fine. I’m in Germany, so this is how I roll this week, I guess. I guess I’ve got some business back home in between doing my business out here.
Science can’t prove it and the industry denies it, but Gary Taubes is convinced that the sweet stuff kills.
“I hope that when you have read this book I shall have convinced you that sugar is really dangerous,” wrote John Yudkin in his foghorn-sounding treatise on nutrition from 1972, Pure, White and Deadly. Sugar’s rapid rise to prominence in the Western diet, starting in the mid-19th century, had coincided with a sudden outbreak of heart disease, diabetes, and obesity. Yudkin, one of the United Kingdom’s most prominent nutritionists at the time, believed that one had caused the other.
Then, as now, there was no decisive test of his idea—no perfect way to make the case that sugar kills. It’s practically impossible to run randomized, controlled experiments on human diets over many years, so the brief against sugar, like the case against any other single foodstuff, must be drawn from less reliable forms of testimony: long-term correlations, animal experiments, evolutionary claims, and expert judgments. In Pure, White and Deadly. Yudkin offered all of these as “circumstantial evidence rather than absolute proof” of his assertion. But so many suspicious facts had already accumulated by 1972, he claimed, that it would be foolish to ignore them. Even based on circumstantial evidence, readers should be convinced “beyond reasonable doubt” of sugar’s crime against humanity.
The main source of meaning in American life is a meritocratic competition that makes those who struggle feel inferior.
What is happening to America’s white working class?
The group’s important, and perhaps decisive. role in this year’s presidential election sparked a slew of commentary focused on, on the one hand, its nativism, racism, and sexism. and, on the other, its various economic woes . While there are no simple explanations for the desperation and anger visible in many predominantly white working-class communities, perhaps the most astute and original diagnosis came from the rabbi and activist Michael Lerner, who, in assessing Donald Trump’s victory, looked from a broader vantage point than most. Underneath the populist ire, he wrote. was a suffering “rooted in the hidden injuries of class and in the spiritual crisis that the global competitive marketplace generates.”
The lonely poverty of America’s white working class
For the last several months, social scientists have been debating the striking findings of a study by the economists Anne Case and Angus Deaton.* Between 1998 and 2013, Case and Deaton argue, white Americans across multiple age groups experienced large spikes in suicide and fatalities related to alcohol and drug abuse—spikes that were so large that, for whites aged 45 to 54, they overwhelmed the dependable modern trend of steadily improving life expectancy. While critics have challenged the magnitude and timing of the rise in middle-age deaths (particularly for men ), they and the study’s authors alike seem to agree on some basic points: Problems of mental health and addiction have taken a terrible toll on whites in America—though seemingly not in other wealthy nations—and the least educated among them have fared the worst.
The Atlantic ’s editors and writers share their favorite titles—new, classic, or somewhere in between—from a year of reading.
Roadside Picnic is a book about aliens in which no aliens appear. Rather, one character hypothesizes, aliens seemed to have zipped carelessly around Earth and strewed it with trash—like roadside picnickers leaving behind wrappers and empty bottles. The scientists, smugglers, and other profiteers so drawn to these alien objects are but ants crawling through the picnic crumbs. Is this a book that makes you contemplate the smallness of humans? Absolutely. Don’t be fooled by the seemingly breezy title. Roadside Picnic was first written in Russian in 1972, and it is the very loose inspiration for the movie Stalker. An afterward to the 2012 English translation describes Soviet efforts to censor the book, which seems somehow newly relevant in America.
In addition to its holiday cheesiness and religious moralizing, the 1946 classic touches on financial themes that remain painfully relevant.
Seventy years after its release, Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life remains a holiday classic, with warm and fuzzy messages about the importance of love and family. But the movie’s plot also touches on some still-relevant financial topics, including the nature of banking, the philosophical calculus behind issuing loans, and the way American families’ financial fates are intertwined (and, we swear, we aren’t just saying that because we both happen to report on business and economics at The Atlantic ).
The film’s protagonist, George Bailey, gives up his dreams of traveling the world to run Bailey Building and Loan, a small community bank with a mortgage business. But all is not well in Bedford Falls. The decisions of the well-intentioned Bailey as he faces an unfortunate deposit-envelope mix-up and tries to fend off an aggressive tycoon make for a clear-cut narrative set piece, but also, whether Capra intended to or not, make the movie financially instructive all these years later.
Berlin suspect shot dead, Libyan plane hijacked, and more from the United States and around the world.
—The manhunt to find the suspect in the Berlin Christmas market attack ended Friday, after the Tunisian man was killed in a shootout with Milan police. More here
—A Libyan plane carrying 118 people was hijacked Friday and diverted to Malta. The two hijackers on board have released at least 65 passengers, but are threatening to blow up the plane with hand grenades. More here
—We’re live-blogging the news stories of the day below. All updates are in Eastern Standard Time (GMT -5).
In a short animation, Barack Obama speaks with Ta-Nehisi Coates about his road to the White House.
From a moral standpoint, it makes the world worse.
A short film on the popular American sport, and why it deserves a better reputation