Poverty is biologically entrenched because people with a tendency to depression have children together and then fail to look after them properly, an academic has claimed.
Holger Strulik, who is chairman of macroeconomics and development at the University of Göttingen, Germany, said that the poor often had to struggle against their own nature to break out of a vicious circle, as the genes and circumstances that left people more vulnerable to depression were found in the most deprived parts of society.
The study comes a year after another lecturer, at King’s College London, faced criticism for arguing that the welfare state had created a social class that was genetically and psychologically “employment-resistant”.
Professor Strulik said: “Poverty causes stress, and stress causes depression for those individuals susceptible to depression. Families who are sufficiently poor and genetically susceptible to depression invest less in their children and [pass on] in this way both poverty and depression to the next generation, and to the next, and so on. This is the neurobiological poverty trap.”
Scientists have found that between 40 and 70 per cent of the risk of depression has a genetic basis. It is also well established that stress and deprivation are powerful triggers for the condition.
In a working paper, he showed how giving poor mothers talking therapy and antidepressants could lift entire “dynasties” out of the poverty trap.
While his initial study was aimed at developing countries, the economist argued that financial crises and the impact of automation on manufacturing jobs were creating the same effect in much richer nations such as Britain. “For rich countries the story needs a twist,” he added. “It is not absolute poverty — the concern how tomorrow’s needs could be met — but relative poverty or status concerns that trigger depression.”
Professor Strulik’s paper, which has yet to be peer reviewed, does not discuss specific genes or show that they are more common among poor people. His “poverty trap” is portrayed as a theoretical model rather than an analysis of data.
Nevertheless Roger Farmer, an economics professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, has hailed the work as “an excellent example of the kind of creative new ideas that we are hoping to foster”.
The theory threatens to reignite the debate that followed the publication of Adam Perkins’s book The Welfare Trait. The researcher at King’s College called for the withdrawal of child benefit to the poorest households so that fewer children would be born at a genetic and social disadvantage to their peers.
He said that he had encountered politically correct bias against his work at every step and suggested that Professor Strulik might face similar opposition. “Many academics are terrified of being perceived as non-PC,” he said.
Dr Perkins said that the main problem was likely to be wider than the genes behind depression. “The women in the problem families [in a series of social studies in Sheffield] were significantly more impulsive, irresponsible, apathetic and aggressive than those in the comparison families,” he said.
“Apathy is a symptom of depression, but you can see it’s not the whole story, hence singling out one psychological correlate of disadvantage does not make much sense — we need to think in chords rather than notes.”