‘People who need help more get less’

Ella Rhodes reports on Professor Eldar Shafir's keynote at the Annual Conference.

Looking at the behaviour of people living in poverty could lead to the conclusion that the poor behave very badly, said Professor Eldar Shafir (Princeton University). People living in poverty have poor adherence to drugs, take out multiple high-interest payday loans, are inconsistent parents… some studies have found poorer farmers even weed their fields less than their richer counterparts. 

Shafir, who studies decision making in the context of poverty, suggested the behaviour of those living in poverty isn’t rational or pathological: it’s simply human. ‘If you experience scarcity a lot of your mind is allocated to juggling that insufficient resource. When we devote a lot of resources to that less mind is left for other stuff and bad things happen.’ 

Shafir said when talking about poverty in the US or UK some may say ‘well you’d be middle class if you lived in India’, but this is profoundly misguided. Poverty is living the minimally acceptable life in the time and place you live in. In the USA, 120 million people are financially challenged and struggling to have enough money to make it through the month, while often working extraordinarily hard in more than one job. 

Poor people constantly have to think in trade-offs. Shafir compared this to packing a suitcase. If your budget is the equivalent of a huge suitcase you can throw in everything you need, with some space left over, and forget about it. With a smaller suitcase or budget people have to consider what is definitely needed, what takes up the most room, and what can be left behind. ‘The poor are very good at small budgets… they think in trade-offs all the time. When you go out and buy a book you don’t have to think about what you won’t buy instead… but the person who sells you the book does have to think like that.’ 

We have limited bandwidth as humans; our ability to attend to multiple things is incredibly limited. When we focus on one thing, including our lack of money, this occupies much of our thought. Shafir compared it to an experiment run in 1943 by Allied forces attempting to determine how to feed people who had been starving. A group of conscientious objectors were starved to the point they could not even lift their arms above their head. They found these men’s focus was solely on food – they memorised recipes and spoke only about food. When they were shown a film in an attempt to distract them from their hunger, they ignored all the romance scenes and plot and instead only noticed the food and meals in the film. 

The effect of scarcity also translates into performance on cognitive experiments. Shafir and his colleagues tested shoppers in a New Jersey mall and gave participants a scenario to consider – your car has broken down and it will cost either $150 or $1,500 to fix. While participants considered what to do, they carried out spatial and reasoning tasks. If someone was in a lower income group, and in the more expensive car-repair scenario, they performed worse than in the less expensive scenario. People who earned more money performed well in both conditions. 

Shafir said there is an irony around scarcity: when people don’t have enough, the decisions they need to make in life are exceedingly complex but they receive little help. ‘People who need help more get less. If you think about policy this way it has implications.’ 

Policy makers and those working with people in poverty should be aware that many people in this group aren’t just worried about money but about juggling various aspects of life. However, there are ways to make life easier for them. ‘In the US McDonald’s gives you your working hours 48 hours in advance, so if you have kids you will be in permanent child-management-crisis mode. If they gave more notice, workers would be better and happier… When you tell a struggling person “you have to be there at 8” they don’t have bandwidth. Instead why not say come any time this morning and remove the tax on their bandwidth when you want to help them.’

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