Why spend money on poor people? Because it saves money

September 21, 2012 at 3:48 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment
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Recently I moved house from Warwickshire to Staffordshire, UK. Now I find support for that decision from no less a source than Science.

In moving house, I crossed one of those social boundaries it’s not nice to mention: the border between south and north of the UK’s second city, Birmingham. Southern friends said faintly, “I’m sure Staffordshire’s lovely!” The blunter ones said, “But Warwickshire’s so nice!” (by which they meant, so close to Oxford and London.) They added, “But of course, houses are so much cheaper, you’ll be able to get something much nicer.”

Indeed. Instead of being stuck in a mid-terrace with a tiny paved gardenA house, a traffic junction outside the front door, parking disputes, and noisy neighbours, I’m now looking out at hedges, trees, and birdlife.

It’s wonderful! I’m sure the move has done me good. Fewer particulates, fewer parties-till-three-am next door, more privacy, what’s not to like?

It now seems that might be more than wishful thinking. A study in Science, looking at much more extreme poverty, finds that moving from a poor to a better neighbourhood can do you the power of good. Or, as the authors say in their abstract, produce “long-term (10- to 15-year) improvements in adult physical and mental health and subjective well-being.”

The study looked at health after-effects of an unusually rational government initiative: the US government’s ‘Moving to Opportunity’ scheme. From 1994-1998, over 4000 participants were given the chance to move somewhere better by lottery (in effect, this was a randomised controlled trial). The researchers had previously reported positive effects on obesity and diabetes. A broader measure of physical health wasn’t quite statistically significant, but measures of mental health and subjective well-being were “sizable and sustained”. These are conditions which cost the US a fortune every year.

One of the most interesting trends in brain research in recent years has been the growing evidence of just how bad poor and disadvantaged backgrounds can be for people. “Money isn’t everything”, people say (often, as a friend acerbically remarked, the people who have money and want to keep it). That’s surely truth, but only truth-in-part. Because if you don’t have money, you hurt – in all sorts of immediate, obvious ways, and in the longer-term, perhaps less obvious ones which science is starting to quantify.

I’m curious to see whether, in the UK and US, the political swing towards harder attitudes to welfare will be mirrored in science by a swing away from this kind of research. Perhaps in future years we’ll be seeing studies of ‘initiative’ and ‘self-sufficiency’ replacing the current emphasis on factors beyond individual control, factors which make ‘equality of opportunity’ and ‘a level playing field’ such meaningless platitudes. After all, in hard economic times, blaming the poor is easier than tackling poverty.

And yet, if we could tackle poverty, we’d likely make a whole lot else a whole lot better.

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