Fair Warning: Reading this blog could surface your own buried, latent aversions to money, especially if you’re one of the 130 million adult Americans who don’t have three months worth of savings to live on.
When I was a kid, I used to deliver newspapers door to door to try to earn a little extra spending money to support the State’s monthly welfare payment (officially known as Aid to Families with Dependent Children). Operating a paper route in a low (no) income housing project is a suboptimal business strategy: not only did most people not read the newspaper, but they felt little compunction about subscribing and not paying for it. Given that basic business fundamental, you can imagine how excited I was at the prospect of delivering newspapers at 6AM on a February Sunday morning after a night of heavy snow. It required me to bundle up as best I could and head down to the drop off point and load three canvas bags full of the super-heavy New Haven Sunday Registers (by contrast, weekday papers only filled one canvas bag). To make matters worse, the first leg of the paper route up around Rockview Circle was all uphill. I can still feel the blood drain from my hands and feet just thinking about it.
Ultimately, that paper route provided me, at the tender age of 11, with my first experience in business bankruptcy. Having a business go bust is a pretty difficult adrenal event to manage at any age. It’s especially difficult for an 11 year old. I can still remember dreading the 10th of every month when Mr. Hartle would show up (I still recall his actual name more than a half century later) to receive the money that I was supposed to be collecting from my Register subscribers. I was always literally a day late and much more than a dollar short. Which I hated and which caused my young brain and body great stress. But for some reason, over many weeks Mr. Hartle let me carry a negative monthly balance with him. Until one month when I had no money for him at all, and my balance had become larger than he was willing to carry. Goodbye paper route; so long extra spending money.
Seeing How the Other Half Lives
Walking around the projects every day though, gave me surreptitious entree into people’s private lives. Standing in their doorways while they went searching to try to drum up cash to pay the paperboy, I could see pretty clearly how people lived when they weren’t trying to put their best foot forward. I could also see the kinds of things that they actually did with the little money they had, the physical paper currency. I saw them spill booze and all kinds of half-eaten food on it. I saw them roll up dollar bills and use them to snort coke and heroin. I saw bills sticking out of couch crevices filled with all sorts of human detritus. I watched their unsupervised toddlers put dollar bills in their diapers and then put them in their mouths. Poverty and money seemed poorly matched for each other in many telling ways.
The Science of Dirty Money
So I wasn’t the least bit surprised to come upon this recent NY Times article describing how researchers have discovered over 3000 different kinds of bacteria covering the average bills we carry in our pocket or purse.
The bacteria found on money included Staphylococcus aureus, Escherichia coli, Helicobacter pylori and Corynebacterium diphtheriae. To make matters worse, they could only identify only about 20% of the non-human DNA they found on those bills because so many microorganisms haven’t even been cataloged in genetic data banks yet. Pretty scary.
Since our brain is tasked first and foremost with keeping us alive, it tends to pay attention to things like bacterial threats. E-coli, Helicobacter pylori and their friends represent a pretty serious threat to health and well-being in my book; also in my brain’s book. Biggy Smalls’ observation, “Mo’ money, mo’ problems” seems right on – many of those problems related to health (including his, where money was indirectly responsible for cutting his life short as the result of a hip-hop war-related assassination).
Poverty Is as Poverty Does
But that’s not all. Read what Columbia University pediatrician Kimberley Noble has to say about my early difficulties with money:
“Socioeconomic disadvantage is associated with a decreased ability to regulate cognition and emotions, a critical aspect of school readiness that predicts grades and achievement-test scores from elementary through high school. Recent work from a number of laboratories has demonstrated SES (Socio-Economic Status) disparities in the neuro-anatomic structure and function of the prefrontal and limbic cortical regions that support these skills. Again, chronic stress has been associated with alterations in the development of this circuitry. Thus, a third pathway would suggest that SES differences in exposure to stress may also operate on prefrontal cortex and limbic circuitry, thus mediating previously described SES disparities in self-regulation.”
The combination of the stress of poverty and in going bust at age 11 and observing all the disgusting things that people did with their money definitely had an impact on my young brain. Not only did they make me dumb and out of control around money, but my brain apparently treated them as threats and stored them away in the deep recesses of my neural evidence locker – the unconscious part of the brain where implicit memories get stashed away. The unfortunate part is that unconscious early experience seems to run the show in my life much more that I would ideally like it to, and not just around money.
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