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What Terrible Creative Price Does Poverty Exact?

Updated: Nov 27, 2023

When I was living in the Midwest and belonged to a local Rotary Club, one of the things our chapter became part of was a reading program for at-risk children. Some of us would go to an inner city elementary school once or twice per week for a couple of hours to help children with their reading skills one-on-one. As you can imagine, over time, this gave us a front row seat to some of the challenges these children faced.

In fact, some of my more politically conservative fellow Rotarians who were part of the program did a complete about-face on how they thought about the poor: that they’re lazy or somehow brought these conditions upon themselves, that they don’t care, that they don’t seize opportunity, etc.

After some time passed and we began to share our experiences with each other, we started to see a common theme: not surprisingly, these children were living with daily trauma. “My cousin was shot,” or “my brother is in jail,” were phrases we heard in the middle of reading lessons, after some trust had been established. Of course, we knew their lives were difficult, but these confessions took it to a whole new level.

As a professional musician who had also taught violin and viola my entire career, I was interested in getting a music program, something the school didn’t have, fired up. However, when I approached the school’s Principal about my ideas, I was met with overwhelming, yet realistic, obstacles as to why this wouldn’t work.

For one thing, where would the instruments come from? There was no budget for such a thing. No problem, I thought, I’ll raise the money. For another, what about supplies like music stands, books, and sheet music? And by the way, she told me, the children can’t take their instruments (or anything else, for that matter) home, because they could be damaged, lost or stolen. So practicing outside the school, a big component of learning an instrument, would be impossible.

I was embarrassed that these things (things I took for granted) hadn’t crossed my mind, but I was also angry that these children would be deprived not only of the pleasure of learning an instrument (something so vital to my own childhood mental health), but also all the benefits that go along with it. There would be no concerts where children can feel proud of their accomplishments, their parents cheering them on, no field trips to outside performances, no camaraderie with fellow musicians, no exposure to great composers, no understanding of how music comes together.

So I began to wonder: how much human creativity, and therefore human potential, are we losing to poverty? As it turns out, an unacceptably and dangerously high amount in the United States alone. There is not a shadow of a doubt that poverty is not good for human beings, and yet approximately one-sixth of just the U.S. population, or forty-two million people, are living in it. That percentage can be much higher in other, poorer countries.

What does this mean on a practical level? For starters, forty-two million Americans (twelve million of them children) do not have access to the Internet. Why does this matter? The internet allows people, at the minimum, educational attainment, good healthcare outcomes, social connection, and economic mobility. Without these basic tools, you’re stuck in a situation with no future. In fact, poverty completely eradicates the future, as the writer George Orwell found out after spending some time “tramping” in England and then documenting his experiences. When all you can think about is survival, there will be no time or energy to dream about the future and see yourself in it.

When our brains are constantly searching for ways to get through the day, all daydreaming, or exploratory thinking about life down the road, stops. When this happens in a young person, the brain stops developmental trajectories, or dreaming about the future, and after a while, this becomes difficult, if not impossible, to retrieve.

Toxic stress in children has been shown to have lifelong impact if not dealt with. It’s been shown that a young child’s brain stem will respond to continued stress by growing larger, resulting in a person who is constantly on the alert for stress in adulthood. The day to day stress of poverty is no doubt causing children in poverty to have developmental anomalies that will be with them the rest of their lives.

We can all think of exceptions to these kinds of situations - Oprah, for instance - but we need to keep in mind that these are strictly anecdotal, not data. And the data points to the vast majority of children growing up in poverty being affected developmentally in the brain, and therefore, in their ability to be creative.

Some of the outcomes of living in childhood poverty are:

  • Poor nutrition, which affects the development of the brain, and therefore cognition and mental development

  • Immune system outcomes from incessant stress, resulting in disease later down the line

  • Lack of education, and therefore, opportunity for betterment

  • Loss of sleep, which affects brain development and health

  • Low self-esteem

  • Involvement in criminal activities due to lack of viable choices

  • Difficulty forming lasting relationships

But the most significant and tragic loss to me is the lack of creative drive, which can solve a lot of the other outcomes. Creativity is the way we express our humanity, and provides a reason for our lives on Earth. With the imperative global issues we are currently facing - pandemics, terrorism, and climate change to name some big ones - we need creative brain power. And yet, billions of people who might have solutions to these pressing issues are not able to access their own potential mental gifts due to poverty.

The poorer people are, the larger families tend to be - even though this seems counter intuitive, it is a well-established fact. If we can harness the creativity of all humans by eliminating poverty, we would also solve our overpopulation problem, which would have the effect of raising everyone up to a better, more creative, rewarding existence. It’s a future worth investing in, and in fact, is one we can’t afford not to.

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