More on poverty and cognitive bandwidth.

Last week I wrote about an important new study, published in the journal Science, that found that poverty itself – coping with the ever-present state of not having enough to live on – taxes the brain to the point where the poor move through life as if experiencing the equivalent of a missed night of sleep. Living in poverty requires so many mental puzzles and trade-offs that the rest of us never confront: Should I pay for groceries or gas? If I take a second job, who will collect my child from school? What's worse: the steep price of a payday loan, or the late fee that will come from missing another utility bill?

All of these questions suck up so much mental bandwidth that the poor are left with little cognitive capacity to succeed in tasks that seem wholly unrelated to money. Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir, two of the authors of that study, describe it this way in a much more in-depth new book that grew out of some of this same research, Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much:

The poor fall short in many ways. The poor in the United States are more obese. In most of the developing world, the poor are less likely to send their children to school. The poor do not save enough. The poor are less likely to get their children vaccinated. The poorest in a village are the ones least likely to wash their hands or treat their water before drinking it. When they are pregnant, poor women are less likely to eat properly or engage in prenatal care. We could go on. And on.

These facts follow like a tedious argument of insidious intent (to butcher T.S. Eliot). The overwhelming question in this case is an old, almost tired one. Why do the poor fail so badly and in so many ways?

Some might look at that litany of failures and conclude that the common denominator is the poor themselves: They're just not as inherently capable as other people, whether as parents, or learners, or hard workers. Mullainathan and Shafir propose that the more likely common culprit is a "scarcity mindset," a condition of living with too little that makes it hard to concentrate on so much else. Anyone who becomes poor would find themselves in the same mentally taxing position.

As several commenters to last week's article suggested, plenty of people who aren't poor also experience distractions or stresses in life that make it harder to focus on the things they'd like to. And this is true. Mullainathan and Shafir base their hypothesis on the idea that all kinds of scarcity are accompanied by a common psychology. People who are rich may not experience a scarcity of money, but they often experience a scarcity of time. People who are lonely experience a scarcity of social connections. People who are hungry experience a very literal scarcity of calories.

And, just as the poor must fixate their attention on financial dilemmas, the hungry have repeatedly been shown in research to fixate on food to the mental exclusion of other priorities. Scarcity causes us to focus, and there's an obvious benefit to this. A writer under a tight deadline – a scarcity of time – is likely to be more productive (recall your days in college: when you had three weeks to write a paper, when did you actually get it done?). And a family in poverty is actually much better at stretching the value of a dollar, and knowing the price of every item in the checkout line, than a middle-class family that doesn't have to count pennies.

But that focus comes at a cost. A student who borrows time from one class to write a last-minute paper for another one will eventually pay for that tradeoff. A poor mother focusing on the immediate problem of unpaid rent may not notice that her child has left for school without breakfast.

A key point of Mullainathan and Shafir's work is that we may all experience different kinds of scarcity, accompanied by the same hyper-narrow focus and costs in lost attention elsewhere. But those costs of scarcity – the "bandwidth tax," they call it – are the highest for the poor. They have no room for error. They have more opportunity to fail. They pay more dearly for their mistakes. The bandwidth tax is much, much higher, with the cruel irony that scarcity often produces more scarcity.

That mother pays the rent instead of the electric bill. Then she owes an extra $40 for the fee just to reconnect the electricity next week, and she's now even further in the hole (Mullainathan and Shafir cite a 1997 study suggesting that the poor in the U.S. devote 5 percent of their annual income to reconnection and late fees alone). In the meantime, she's neglected to take her insulin, prompting her health care costs to go up, too.

The rest of us, meanwhile, have slack built into our budgets: We can afford a late fee. We can pay the unusually high winter electric bill without having to pull that money away from somewhere else. Scenarios that demand a difficult decision for the poor require no such choice from the non-poor: Of course I'll pay that bill. Mullainathan and Shafir aptly cite Henry David Thoreau: "A man is rich in proportion to the number of things he can afford to let alone."

Now, what would happen if we viewed the problems of poverty through the psychology of scarcity? This doesn't mean that hard work is irrelevant. It means that we could create programs for the poor that are more forgiving of error, that present fewer opportunities for failure, that demand less bandwidth for paperwork or red tape, and that recognize that alleviating one problem (say, childcare) may actually address others, too (like health). We could create programs that acknowledge that the poor are short on bandwidth as much as cash.

Perhaps this requires some imagination. Try this, via Mullainathan and Shafir:

So if you want to understand the poor, imagine yourself with your mind elsewhere. You did not sleep much the night before. You find it hard to think clearly. Self-control feels like a challenge. You are distracted and easily perturbed. And this happens every day. On top of the other material challenges poverty brings, it also brings a mental one.

Doesn't that sound exhausting?

Top image of clients at a food pantry in Indianapolis in 2012: Aaron P. Bernstein/Reuters

About the Author

Most Popular

  1. Equity

    How Baltimore Removed Its Confederate Monuments Overnight

    For a city dogged by violence and unrest, this was a big deal.

  2. Equity

    Meet the 26-Year-Old Mayor Taking On Jeff Sessions

    Michael Tubbs on being singled out by the DOJ, and his plan turn his city around.

  3. Transportation

    New York City Could Finally Try Congestion Pricing

    Here’s how a governor-backed plan could win this time around.

  4. Environment

    The Politics of the Dog Park

    Dogs are children for a growing number of Americans—and that’s putting new pressures on pup-friendly space.  

  5. Skyscrapers tower over Singapore's historic Chinatown.
    Economic Development

    How Do You Measure the Value of a Historic Site?

    Debates over historic preservation often run into a problem: There’s plenty of data to support economic arguments, and much less to address questions of cultural value. A research team in Singapore wants to change that.