ARE THE POOR LESS INTELLIGENT? OR MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING ANUP KUMAR...
ARE THE POOR LESS INTELLIGENT? OR MUCH ADO
ANUP KUMAR SINGH
This article critically examines the relationship between poverty and intelligence. Numerous studies
conducted in India and abroad yield ambiguous findings. In addition, the intelligence concept is characterized
by various theoretical flaws. Further, the poverty-intelligence issue is reevaluated in the context of the
nurture-nature controversy. There is evidence that poor children can do as well as middle class children,
but the proviso is that they should have a similar experimental background. All human beings have unlimited
intellectual capacities and the real task is to develop these.
Anup Kumar Singh is Visiting Scholar, Department of Psychology, University of Michigan.
The first human necessity is education. For all that reason learning is fundamental
to social life. Man is born knowing nothing but capable of learning everything.
He is subject to what he learns.
Luis A. Machado (1980)
Intelligence is a highly valued (and perhaps, highly misunderstood) psychological
attribute in modern society. Terms like intelligent, genius, and idiot are not only
part of the psychological science, but are also very much part of everyday language.
Unfortunately, the more popular the concept becomes and the more it is scientifically
investigated, the more the misunderstanding that prevails about it. Intelligence
research has been characterized by many debates (Block & Dwarking, 1976). One
such debates concerns itself with the relationship between poverty and intelligence
(White, 1982). Researchers report inconsistent findings about this relationship.
They also disagree about the explanations of the poverty-intelligence relationship.
Some psychologists argue that there is no intelligence difference between poor and
nonpoor groups, while others contend that they exist and are caused by differential
environments. Another group of researchers proposes that intelligence differences
are due to genetic factors. In this article, we shall review literature on the relationship
between poverty and intelligence, related issues, and the nurture-nature controversy
in the context of the poverty-intelligence relationship.
Review of Literature
In the past three decades, several studies conducted in different countries have
documented that conditions of poverty are conducive to the decline of intelligence
(Jones, 1954). Baker, Shutz, and Hinze (1961) found that socioeconomic status
(SES) was very positively associated with intelligence quotient (IQ). In Britain,
Douglas, Ross, and Simpson (1968), using National British Survey data, found that
middle class children scored higher on intelligence tests than lower class children.
In Turkey, Kagitcibasi (1979), who measured the intelligence of rural and urban
children of different socioeconomic backgrounds through a Draw-A-Man Test, found
that a low SES group scored lower in comparison to a middle SES group. Moreover,
378 Anup Kumar Singh
rural subjects of the most remote village had the lowest scores and urban middle
class subjects had the highest.
Pinto (1980-81) compared logico-verbal abilities of 5, 9 and 13 year old children
from urban and suburban districts of Rome, on intelligence, vocabulary, Byrne's
Progressive Picture Composition, and two Piagetian tests. He found that social
class did not affect nonverbal intelligence at three age levels but it affected verbal
intelligence. Firkowska-Mankiewicz and Czarkowski (1981) examined intelligence
of eleven year old children from Warsaw on the Raven Progressive Matrices
(RPM) and the Wechsler Intelligence Scale for Children (WISC). They found that
subjects of a high social class had higher IQ scores in comparison to children
of a lower class. In Argentina, Sans (1982) compared IQ scores, using WISC,
of two SES groups. The results showed that a high SES group outperformed a low
SES group. In addition, the difference was more salient in the case of verbal
In New Zealand, Silva, McGee, Thomas, and Williams (1982) studied five year old
children of six socioeconomic groups. They collected information on the children
about parents' background, family and housing characteristics, child experiences
and activities, Stanford-Binet Intelligence Scale, Reynell Development Language
Scale, and MacCarthy Scales of Children's Abilities, physical growth, and health
problems. The results revealed that SES did not affect physical growth and health
problems. But high SES children scored higher on intellectual ability tests than
low SES children.
In Hungary, Eotvos (1983) studied nursery school children on the RPM. He observed
that SES positively affected intelligence scores. In a longitudinal study conducted
at Guatemala city, Bogin and MacVean (1983) examined children of different SES
groups on physical and intellectual development. They found that high SES children
scored higher in intelligence tests than middle class children, while middle class
children scored higher than their lower class counterparts.
In another study conducted in Britain, Mascie-Taylor(1984) studied the relationship
of intelligence with 29 biosocial variables. He found that children of higher social
class had higher scores than lower class children. This effect remained even if
parental, biological, familial, and social factors were controlled. Chalip and Stigler
(1986) examined 1st and 5th graders of lower and higher SES in Taiwan on the
RPM and on mathematics achievement. They noted that higher SES subjects
outperformed their low SES counterparts in both tests.
Numerous Indian studies have reported mixed findings. Tripathi and Misra (1975)
have noted a linear relationship between deprivation and intelligence. Mohanty
(1980) observed that socioculturally advantaged children performed better than
disadvantaged children on the RPM (Coloured form). Rangari and Palsane (1982)
investigated the intelligence of scheduled caste (SO and nonscheduled caste (NSC)
male and female students of five SES levels. They found that SC and NSC
students of first, second, and fifth SES levels did not differ in their intelligence.
It follows that caste difference is more pronounced for the middle class subjects.
In contrast, studying the effects of ecological background (better community vs.
slum) and poverty levels on IQ scores, Husain and Jehan (1983) found that poverty
Poverty and IQ 379
did not influence intelligence scores. However, subjects of a better community
had higher IQ scores in comparison to slums children.
In another study, Singh and Sinha (1983) investigated the intelligence of Santal
and non-Santal students on the Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scale. They found that
non-Santal students had higher IQ scores than Santal students. Sinha (1980) tested
tribal (Oraons) and non-tribal students on non-verbal intelligence. He found that
tribal and non-tribal students did not differ on total intelligence scores and different
subscales, i.e., Passalong Test, Block Design Test, and Cube Construction Test.
In a study conducted in Orissa, Jachuck (1984) compared disadvantaged and
advantaged children on Level I and Level II abilities. She did not find any effects
of disadvantage on Level I abilities. However, the advantaged group scored higher
on Level II abilities. She explained the findings in terms of environmental factors.
Basvana and Rani (1984) examined the impact of caste and economic deprivation
on the Standard Progressive Matrices for junior school boys. The subjects were
equally divided in four groups based on caste and economic deprivation. The results
revealed that lower caste subjects scored lower on verbal and numerical ability
tests as compared to high caste subjects. In a meta-analytical study, White (1982)
explored the relationship between SES and academic achievement. He defined the
academic achievement in terms of the achievement test, class ranks, grades, and
intelligence scores. He found that academic achievement was weakly related with
SES. The findings of this study imply a weak relationship between poverty and
In summary, the findings reveal that the relationship between poverty and intelligence
is inconclusive. The magnitude of correlations varies in different studies. Also,
the effect of poverty is more evident in the verbal tests than in non-verbal tests
Critique of Intelligence and Intelligence Tests
Intelligence and intelligence testing have been criticised widely. The two major
criticisms are: the lack of validity, and the bias against the disadvantaged
community. First, the lack of validity is concerned with two issues. Is there anything
like intelligence? If yes, do the IQ tests measure intelligence? Second, if IQ tests
measure intelligence, are they fair to different groups?
Many social scientists argue that intelligence is a redundant concept. It says
nothing. If somebody does not know some words, is unable to solve some abstract
problems or manipulate objects, then he is not cognitively inferior. Barring a few
cases when cognitive functioning is disrupted, basic cognitive processes are the
same in all human beings. The idea that success in solving abstract problems
rapidly reflects high intelligence is an elitist idea to maintain status quo
Ginsberg (1972) is very critical of IQ tests. He argues that they do not measure
the intellect. He contends that there are four major myths regarding the intelligence
test. These fallacies are: (a) Intelligence tests measure an intelligence which is
unitary mental ability, (b) the difference in IQ scores reflects fundamental difference
380 Anup Kumar Singh
in intellect, (c) IQ tests measure competence, and (d) they can measure innate
intellectual abilities. On the other hand, Ginsberg argues, IQ tests (a) measure
multiple abilities, (b) reflect motivational and subcultural differences, (c) measure
performance, and (d) indicate experiences.
Another group of theorists argues that even if IQ tests measure a bit of intellectual
ability, their validity is doubtful. The criteria against which the intelligence tests
are standardized are unsatisfactory. In most cases, school grade and chronological
age have been used to validate the intelligence tests. The school grades are not
so much related to intelligence as they are related to work habits, home environ-
ment, and desire to do better. Regarding chronological age, the higher scores with
increasing age reveal greater practice and familiarity. The validity of IQ tests is also
plagued by circularity. The elements of intelligence tests are derived from the
school related materials and they are, in turn, validated against school performance.
The evidence of validity is inferred by high correlations of items with the total
scores, which is misleading. Richardson and Bryner (1984) suggest that items which
relate closely to the total scores are selected a priori,
and then they will closely
correlate with the total score a posteriori.
But this does not happen in reality.
Therefore, the validity is a methodological artifact.
The use of intelligence tests turns against the poor because tests are valid and
relevant only for the middle class. Montagu (1975) points out that intelligence tests
are arbitrarily standardized on the middle class and, therefore, they discriminate
against the lower classes. The content of IQ tests is unfamiliar, strange, and irrelevant
to low SES children. The intelligence tests are such that the majority of the poor
will score lower in them. As IQ tests do not reflect the intellect of individuals, its
use for testing is conducive to dangerous social consequences. It rejects the
intellect of individuals rather than selecting it. Davis (1960) has pointed out that,
"Half of the ability of this country (the United States) goes down the drain because
of the failure of intelligence tests to measure the real mental ability of children
from the lower socio-economic groups and because of the failure of the schools
to recognize and to train this ability." In the same fashion, Codd (1985) questions
the use of the Test of Scholastic Abilities (TOSCA). TOSCAs are used to distribute
population on the basis of mental ability. It is bound to show that some people
are intellectually superior than others, which is unethical.
In summary, intelligence testing has been criticized on many grounds. Some social
scientists have contended that intelligence is a myth. It is a way to justify inequalities
in society. Moreover, intelligence tests are inadequately validated. The IQ tests
favour middle class individuals. Lastly, the social consequences of intelligence
testing are threatening to the poor.
Nature-nurture controversy in Intelligence Research
The Nature-nurture controversy has important implications for the poverty-
intelligence relationship (Schiff & Lewontin, 1986). The nature thesis proposes that
intelligence differences across different social classes and racial groups are due to
genetic factors; therefore, there is bleak hope of boosting intelligence. On the
Poverty and IQ 381
other hand, the nurture thesis holds that the poor have less intelligence due to
impoverished environment; thus, intelligence can be boosted by enriching environ-
ment. In the following section, we shall critically examine the genetic perspective
with special reference to the poverty-intelligence issue.
The Genetic Theory of Intelligence and its Critique
The roots of genetic theory of intelligence can be found in the philosophical
work of Herbert Spencer, the bio-physiological approach of Francis Galton, and the
psychological studies of Cyril Burt. Jensen is a modern proponent of the genetic
theory of intelligence. Jensen (1981) states that there is a general factor of
intelligence which is abstract, universal, and unaffected by Socio-cultural factors.
Some intelligence tests, particularly non-verbal ones, can measure the general
factor. The intelligence is determined by polygenetic inheritance. According to him,
although factors like associative mating, dominance and inbreeding, epistasis, and
genotypes-environment interaction contaminate the effect of heredity on intelligence,
they have little actual effect. Jensen (1969) proposes that there are two intellectual
abilities: Level I and Level II. Level I abilities refer to associate type learning,
while Level II abilities are complex intellectual processes. The former are registration,
storage, and recall while the latter are transfer, generalization, abstraction,
conceptualization, reasoning, and problem solving. Both abilities are inheritable.
He advances the hypothesis that the intelligence of the blacks is inferior to that the
white counterparts in the United States. In addition, there are social class differences
in intelligence which are also inheritable.
Critics of the genetic theory of intelligence have questioned this position on several
theoretical, conceptual, methodological, and statistical grounds. For example, Kamin
(1974) has re-examined the original genetic research on intelligence conducted
by Cyril Burt in England. He notes a variety of methodological and statistical flaws.
He concludes that there is no substantial evidence to show that intelligence is
inheritable. We shall critically focus here on some of the issues which question
the validity of the genetic theory.
Role of situational factors:
Situational factors, such as testee's motivation, prior
testing experience, test anxiety, test administrator's language, race, and social
class, substantially affect test scores. The test items have little significance for
poor children. Therefore, they are not motivated to perform well in the test.
There is evidence to suggest that test difference between a lower and a higher
SES group disappears when the test situation is made less threatening to the
former. In a recent study, Miller and Eller (1985) have examined the effects of
money and praise rewards on the intelligence of middle school black-white and
lower-middle class subjects. They found that lower class blacks showed an increase
in intelligence scores when motivated by the condition of monetary reward,
while middle class whites scored higher in the praise reward condition. The sequencing
of money first and praise second was conducive to higher IQ scores in lower and
middle class white females and middle class males. Overall, the findings showed
that motivation of the testees significantly contributes to increasing the intelligence
Conception of environment:
The genetic theorists conceptualize environment
narrowly and heredity broadly. Sometimes, they equate socioeconomic status and
382 Anup Kumar Singh
home with the environment. Thus, heredity is everything except social class and
home conditions. The genetic theorists bypass the cultural, historical, and inter-
generational aspects of environment. The rich and poor have different histories of
experiences. The cultural dimension of environment helps one to understand that
different cultural groups value different elements of intelligence, and they may
score low on those elements of intelligence which are not valued in a given
culture. Lastly, the intergenerational aspect refers to the phenomenon that social
conditions of the parents set limits for the intellectual achievement of a child.
There exists social inheritance besides genetic inheritance.
Culture, environment and intelligence:
Cross-cultural psychologists point out that
the intelligence tests, conceptualized and developed in the Western cultures,
cannot be used in the other cultures. The people of one culture should be judged
intelligent on the elements that they consider to be intelligence and not on what
Westerners think. Berry (1976) observes that people of a culture develop specific
abilities to adapt to their environment, and if they are successful in their environment,
they are intelligent. Cultural groups differ in their meaning systems, and they value
different aspects of cognitive skills, and they are exposed to differences in
technologies, social systems, the physical world, and ways of living. Accordingly,
they emphasize different facets of the cognitive processes. The scores, thus, show
qualitative differences rather than quantitative deficits.
Different interpretation of H2:
The genetic theorists argue that heritability quotient,
H2, reflects the contribution of heredity for the trait in question. H2 is a main
statistical tool to show the importance of heredity. But it is a weak statistical
tool. Fisher (1951) called it an "unfortunate shortcut". It does not reveal the relative
contribution of nature as the genetic theorists claim. H2 is also methodological
artifact because it is higher when environment is homogenous and lower when
the environment is heterogenous. The genetic studies often select a homogenous
environment and, in turn, obtain higher H2.
Another issue concerns the different H2 for different elements of intelligence and
socially desirable and socially neutral attributes. The socially desirable and cultural
specific attributes reveal more heritabilities. Gottesman (1966) found higher
heritability for dominance (.49) and sociability (.49) than for flexibility (.15) and self-
control (.27). He also observed differential H2s for verbal (.52) and non-verbal
(.25) tests of intelligence. Bronfenbrenner (1975) noted that H2 is the lowest for
the lower class and the highest for the middle and upper classes. Thus, H2 reveals
something more that heredity. He suggests that H2 is, "an index of the capacity
of a given environment to evoke and nurture the development of that ability or
trait" (Bronfenbrenner, 1975: 140).
Relative contribution of environment and heredity:
The genetic theorists propose
that heredity contributes to 70 to 80 per cent of variance in intelligence. It is
impossible to fix figures for the relative contributions of heredity and environ-
ment, for they are correlated. Although heredity is determined at birth, it unfolds
itself only through a complex transaction with the environmental factors. As we
have discussed earlier, H2 is not just a measure of inheritance, it also represents
environmental facilitation to develop potential abilities.
Poverty and IQ 383
Besides the criticisms of the genetic theory outlined earlier in the paper, several
other arguments are advanced against this position. Some theorists propose that
heritability does not mean that intelligence is not malleable. They propose that in a
better environment, phonotype may change drastically. Other theorists contend
that it is necessary to distinguish between broad and narrow heritabilities. They
contend that broad heritability, which is often used in genetic studies, reveals
little about the contribution of heredity. Finally, many social scientists criticize the
pessimistic tone and the racism of the genetic theory.
To summarize, the genetic theory of intelligence has been questioned on several
grounds. Firstly, genetic theorists ignore the situational factors. Secondly, the
environment is very narrowly conceptualized in the genetic studies. Thirdly,
heritability reflects much more than the relative contribution of genetic factors.
It represents the capacity of a given environment to stimulate and nurture the
trait. Lastly, it is impossible to arrive at exact figures for the relative contributions
of environment and heredity.
How does poverty affect intelligence? We began by this question and examined
numerous studies conducted in India and abroad. On the basis of a close perusal
of literature, we conclude that the findings in this area are inconclusive, ambiguous,
and non-supportive. Further, the concept of intelligence is polemical. Different
theorists define intelligence in different ways. Several researchers define intelligence
in terms of how they measure it. Thus, intelligence is what intelligence tests
measure. Evans and Waites (1981) have pointed out that, "operational definitions of
intelligence are unsatisfactory because scientific measurement must be embedded
within scientific theories" (p. 118). On the contrary, measurement leads to conceptual
development in intelligence research.
Cross-cultural research has documented that the concept of intelligence varies
from culture to culture and from one subculture to another. The non-western cultures
emphasize more social elements in defining intelligence. Because values and
conceptions of intelligence vary qualitatively across cultures and subcultures,
differences in IQ scores show qualitative differences and not quantitative deficits.
There is no culture fair test because, to be culture fair, the test requires that people
of different cultures should score equally in it. However, no test has ever shown
One should distinguish between statistical and meaningful differences in order to
understand the intelligence gap between poor and non-poor persons. A statistical
difference is not necessarily a meaningful difference. Sometimes, interpreting
statistical difference as meaningful difference may be a great fallacy. A closer
scrutiny of lower and middle class children shows that they exhibit equal verbal,
reasoning, and problem solving skills in their respective environments. The problem
arises when the lower class children are tested on middle class norms. If poor
children have a middle class environment, they will show similar skills. Thus, even if
intelligence is determined by genetic factors, there are chances of great improvement.
A difference of 10 to 15 points on an intelligence test does not show a fundamental
difference in competence. It is more important to maximize potential and put it into
384 Anup Kumar Singh
performance for better results than to statistically demonstrate surface differences.
Our contention is that all human beings have incredible capacities, and we need to
understand them, maximize them, and use them.
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