The Poverty of the Neuroscience of Poverty: Policy Payoff or False Promise?

49 Pages Posted: 22 Dec 2016 Last revised: 5 May 2017

See all articles by Amy L. Wax

Amy L. Wax

University of Pennsylvania Law School

Date Written: 2017


A recent body of work in neuroscience examines the brains of people suf-fering from social and economic disadvantage. This article assesses claims that this research can help generate more effective strategies for addressing these social conditions and their effects. It concludes that the so-called neuroscience of deprivation has no unique practical payoff, and that scientists, journalists, and policy-makers should stop claiming otherwise. Because this research does not, and generally cannot, distinguish between innate versus environmental causes of brain characteristics, it cannot predict whether neurological and behavioral deficits can be addressed by reducing social deprivation. Also, knowledge of brain mechanisms yields no special insights, over and above behavioral science and social observation, into how to alleviate harms attributed to deprivation. That project depends on changing real-world circumstances and behaviors, which is limited by ethical, practical, and political constraints.

Keywords: Poverty, neuroscience, behavioral science, brain scans, cognition, poverty as a disability, alleviating social deprivation, causation, policies to aid the disadvantaged, social inequality

Suggested Citation

Wax, Amy L., The Poverty of the Neuroscience of Poverty: Policy Payoff or False Promise? (2017). Jurimetrics, Vol. 57, P. 239, 2017, U of Penn Law School, Public Law Research Paper No. 16-52, Available at SSRN:

Amy L. Wax (Contact Author)

University of Pennsylvania Law School ( email )

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