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Poverty exerts a tax on our mind

How do you think about the effects of poverty?  Lower quality schools?   A diminished health care system?  How about taking up (for all of us) scarce mental space?  What happens when you try to think of two things at once?  You’re in class and your mind drifts to something that happened earlier in the day…there goes the thread of the class discussion.  Thinking of two things at once is just hard.

Well maybe one of the main effects of poverty is that if you are poor it is so often on your mind.  Look, I come from a middle class family.  I don’t really know poverty.  But as a grad student I lived on a very tight budget so I had to spend time and thought planning how to eat given what I could afford.  That’s just not a concern now, which frees my mind to do things like blog!

The link below takes you to a piece on a Science paper by Eldar Shafir and his colleagues.  (Here I give a shout out to friend and American U alum Robyn LeBoeuf, who was one of Shafir’s doctoral students at Princeton.) As a sample study, people at a mall were asked to imagine that their car needed $150 or $1500 of repairs and asked how they would pay for it.   Before they answered they did cognitive tasks.  When the repairs were $150, poor and rich subjects did equally well on the cognitive tasks.  But when the repairs were $1500, the poor did worse than the rich did.  The rich don’t have to spend their mind worrying about paying for it, so they can think about the task at hand.  The poor don’t have that luxury.

This has policy implications.  I’ll quote directly from the article:

“[T]he implications for how we think about poverty – and design programs for people impacted by it – are enormous. Solutions that make financial life easier for poor people don’t simply change their financial prospects. When a poor person receives a regular direct-deposited paycheck every Friday, that does more than simply relieve the worry over when money will come in next.

“When we do that, we liberate some bandwidth,” Shafir says. Policymakers tend to evaluate the success of financial programs aimed at the poor by measuring how they do financially. “The interesting thing about this perspective is that it says if I make your financial life easier, if I give you more bandwidth, what I really ought to look at is how you’re doing in your life. You might be doing better parenting. You might be adhering to your medication better.”

I think about this also, as a professor, for our students.  Some of them are in a position in which money doesn’t really matter much.  Others, so, so far from it.  And those students seem likely to have less bandwidth for the work which we assign them.  I’m not sure of the policy implications of this.  But I do think there are clear attributional implications.  Humans are prone to the fundamental attribution error–when someone engages in an action we think it says something about who they are as a person.  One who trips must be clumsy, we think.  When a student isn’t thinking that clearly do we have a tendency to think of them as unintelligent?  Shafir’s work suggests one (of many!) alternatives–that bandwidth that others can spend on listening to our words of wisdom is instead needed to think about money.  Patience.

Here’s the link.  And can anyone tell me why the Atlantic put the word “brain” in the title?  I don’t see how the brain is measured anywhere in the article….



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