Archive for 2009-05-24
Why don't you go get a job?
The most harrowing aspect of my childhood trips to India - other than learning how to squat on the "Indian-style" toilets in my grandfather's Old Delhi compound - was coming face to face with poverty. Riding around Delhi in the backseat of my uncle's Fiat, I would dread long stops at the crowded traffic lights, turning my face the other way and pretending not to hear the rap-tap-tap on the window or see the glistening brown eyes of that little girl with her hand outstretched. The adults never seemed to notice much, and the few persistent beggars that managed to incite a response would hear the familiar admonishing refrain of, "Chall, hatt yahan se. kuch kaam kyun nahi karta?" There's little sympathy for beggars in a family of hard-nosed baniyas who have toiled for generations to amass the wealth they enjoy today. It is difficult for them to understand why beggars don't get off the streets and find steady work instead. From our perspective, beggars seem like misguided, lazy people who haven't tried hard enough to make something of themselves. Science would, however, suggest otherwise.
Neuroscience research conducted on children who have been raised in poverty has shown that the stress of a poor childhood has permanent affects on the brain. More specifically, scientists are learning that the working memories of poorer children, especially those brought up in dense urban populations, have smaller capacities than those of their middle- and upper-class counterparts. What this means is that these children will have a harder time remembering things like long numbers or names of state capitals in school, be less equipped to "mug up" for the brutal exams and, as a result, fair poorer in job interviews, even if they are able to actually go to school and get job interviews in the first place.
The implications are obvious - there are explanations beyond laziness for why the poor stay poor for generations. It's perhaps not fair to blame them for their plight. So, next time you tell a young begger to go get a job, give him a rupee or two along with your advice to take the edge off the stress and make it a little more likely that the kid will have a chance to leave the slums.
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