Brains Without Money: Poverty as Disabling
74 Pages Posted: 28 Jul 2021 Last revised: 4 Oct 2021
Date Written: July 26, 2021
The United States has long treated poverty and disability as separate legal categories, a division grounded in widespread assumptions about the “deserving” and “undeserving” poor. In the case of disability, individuals are generally not thought to be morally responsible for their disadvantage, whereas in the case of poverty, disadvantage is assumed to be the fault of the individual, who is therefore less deserving of aid. This Article argues, however, that recent advances in brain and behavioral science undermine the factual basis for those assumptions. Poverty inhibits brain development during childhood and, later in life, adversely affects cognitive capacities that are key to decision-making and long-term planning. The science of scarcity is complex and ongoing, but its most basic finding is quickly approaching consensus: poverty’s effects in the brain can be disabling.
This Article argues that understanding poverty as disabling has potentially significant implications for policy and doctrine. Viewing poverty as disabling would provide support for poverty programs with less sludge and more money: proposals such as universal basic income, negative income tax, child grants, and greatly simplified benefits determinations. It also reanimates insertion of social welfare concerns into the dominant civil rights framework for disability policy, and could resolve longstanding tensions between disjointed federal disability laws. In addition, brain and behavioral science may support litigation strategies to compel accessibility to existing systems and potentially help promote a new public understanding of the causes of poverty.
The Article concludes by considering the potential (and significant) downsides of using the lens of science in service of policy: backlash, misunderstanding, and the fragility of relying on nascent science to support fundamentally normative policy goals. One necessary mitigation strategy involves the careful translation of science, including its limitations and residual uncertainties, into legal scholarship, an approach this Article attempts to both model and articulate.
Keywords: neuroscience, disability, civil rights, poverty law, behavioral science
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