Think your way out of poverty? Yeah, right

EMpath, a self-described “high-performing and innovative organisation” based in the US, offers a “metric-based, mentor-led, incentivised program” that “takes a comprehensive, multi-faceted approach to fostering economic mobility”. Poverty, they reckon, is all in your head. 

In the poor, they say, “the prefrontal brain can get swamped and the wave of emotion can drown out clear focus and judgment”. This is a normal, temporary state for anyone under significant stress. But living in poverty means this strain is constant. Over time, they say, the constant stress and pressure of poverty form an impression so deep it rewires the brain. 

This is not surprising. Not just because any poor person will tell you that having no money is stressful, but because everything we experience leaves an imprint on our world view. This is the nature of being human. 

So, they say, to overcome poverty, the brain must be retrained to think differently. How can people plan for success when they have no “bandwidth” left for positivity? Children need “tools” like EMpath’s patented (and not at all cult sounding) “Child Bridge to a Brighter Future™”. And the company’s report “Using brain science to design new pathways out of poverty” outlines the “Bridge to Self-Sufficiency” for adults to sort their lives out. 

That’s cute. And the program claims some success helping poor people sort out their checklists and that. But this is no challenge to poverty. 

Unequal distribution of material resources is built into our society. It manifests in shocking inequality and consigns huge numbers to poverty. Eight men now own as much as the bottom half of the population. Does anyone really believe that you can think away cuts to penalty rates? Think away unemployment? Think away causualised, low wage jobs?

In reality, governments rule for the rich and demonise the poor. The Turnbull government is handing $65 billion to the wealthiest businesses in a corporate tax cut. On the other hand, students are facing university fee increases and below poverty level income support, because, says the education minister: “We’re trying to maintain fairness”. 

These policies will drive more people below a poverty line that is already above more than one in 10 people in Australia. That figure is growing, according to the Australian Council of Social Services. 

There’s no thinking around reality. It is not enough to take individuals and train them to work smarter, not harder. We live in a society that has always and will always cut down the hopes and aspirations of poor and working class people. Not because it makes us poor thinkers, but because it relentlessly exploits us.