Further reading on paying the scarcity tax in poverty

Sendhil Mullainathan, in The New York Times, on “The Mental Strain of Making Do With Less.” Ostensibly about the scarcity strain in dieting, this selection about their comparative study in relation to poverty is particularly worth sharing:

Take the case of poverty. In a paper published last month in Science, with Profs. Anandi Mani at the University of Warwick and Jiaying Zhao at the University of British Columbia, Professor Shafir and I waded into politically charged territory. Some people argue that the poor make terrible choices and do so because they are inherently less capable. But our analysis of scarcity suggests a different perspective: perhaps the poor are just as capable as everyone else. Perhaps the problem is not poor people but the mental strain that poverty imposes on anyone who must endure it.

One of our studies focused on Indian sugar cane farmers, who typically feel themselves to be both poor and rich, depending on the season. They are paid once a year at harvest time. When the crop is sold, they are flush with cash. But the money runs out quickly, and by the time the next harvest arrives they are stretched thin: they are, for example, 20 times as likely to pawn an item before harvest as after it. Rather than compare poor and rich farmers, we compare each farmer to himself: when he is rich against when he is poor. This kind of comparison is important because it addresses valid concerns that differences in psychological tests merely reflect differences in culture or test familiarity.

We measured farmers’ mental function — on what psychologists call fluid intelligence and executive control — one month before and one month after harvest. And the effects were large: preharvest I.Q., for example, was lower by about nine to 10 points, which in a common descriptive classification is the distance between “average” and “superior” intelligence. To put that in perspective, a full night without sleep has a similar effect on I.Q.

Also, go read Harold Pollack’s recent long-form interview with Mullainathan in the Washington Post. I wish I could add more but I’m facing my own scarcity (of time) trying to finish this paper. Have a good Sunday, folks.


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