Poverty, Scarcity, and Your Next Diet

Have you ever failed at dieting? A newer book gives an insightful explanation as to why the diet didn’t work; additionally, the same explanation helps us understand why many get stuck in poverty and what might be done to combat its persistence.

jalbm food

In a previous blog post, I asked: Do you know anyone who is poor? In our increasingly stratified society, most better-off Americans don’t maintain friendships with people living in economic poverty; nonetheless, many have an opinion about their societal brothers and sisters struggling to get by on less. And – let’s be honest – that opinion is generally not favorable.

Scarcity: The New Science of Having Less and How it Defines our Lives, by Harvard economist Sendhil Mullainathan and Princeton psychologist Eldar Shafir, exposes as flawed the opinion that being poor is due mostly to moral failure.

Using the term bandwidth to describe fluid and accessible mental capacity, the authors explain how we process information and make decisions. None of us, they maintain, has unlimited mental capacity. As evidence, think about the last time you saw someone texting while driving. The culpable person was either driving ten miles per hour under the limit or weaving in and out of the lane, like a drunk driver. We can only do so much with what we have, especially as concerns texting and driving. Mullainathan and Shafir say that scarcity of differing types (caused by lack of time, money, or other resources) causes tunneling, a concentrated type of focus. Tunneling helps you send or read a text message while driving, but it hampers your driving performance. None of us is as good at multi-tasking as we think we are. Our available brain capacity, or bandwidth, is taxed when we’re doing more than one thing at the same time.

Temporary scarcity helps the mind focus and causes it, for better or for worse, to tunnel. If you missed breakfast for some reason, there’s a good chance you’ll get some lunch – your mind and stomach united, focused on the task. Chronic scarcity, however, is always disadvantageous. One’s mental bandwidth is heavily taxed when living in a state of chronic want and need. Mullainathan and Shafir maintain that chronic scarcity hampers decision making; living in poverty constitutes an austere tax on the mind.

The co-authors agree with the assessment made by many better-off Americans: specifically, the stereotype of those living in poverty as having a “lower effective capacity” concerning positive decision making for their own health and well-being, and that of their families. But – THIS IS A MAJOR DIFFERENCE – Mullainathan and Shafir attribute the diminished capacity of those living in poverty (compared to those who are well-off) not to sub-par character issues and moral failure. They attribute it to the mental bandwidth tax: “part of their mind is captured by scarcity.” Would you and I make some of the same questionable decisions in similar circumstances that poor people make – like spending too much on basketball sneakers for a kid? It’s easy to say “no.” But, have you or I ever lived in chronic poverty? If we answer the latter question in the negative, we best leave the former questioned unanswered.

We’ve all heard of slackers who do their darndest to game the system; some of these are in our own families. They, however, are the minority. In today’s America, a lot of the folks living in poverty are the elderly and children. Mullainathan and Shafir report that 50 percent of American kids today will at one point or another be on food stamps. It’s a great country, as the saying goes, but it’s also an incredibly unequal country.

In my book Just a Little Bit More, I quote the English historian and economist R. W. Tawney who lived in a time of similar inequality to ours – the 1920s. Tawney spoke of an unequal society that lacked understanding of and compassion for those who lived in poverty: “A society which reverences the attainment of riches as the supreme felicity will naturally be disposed to regard the poor as damned in the next world, if only to justify making their life a hell in this.” Tawney wrote these lines in Religion and the Rise of Capitalism, published in 1926. Some things haven’t changed in close to 100 years.

Mullainathan and Shafir do not shun individual responsibility as they encourage an expanded understanding of poverty and its causes. There is no substitute for hard work and personal responsibility for those desiring to rise above the poverty line. The co-authors do call for something they call fault tolerance – I call it compassion for those living in poverty. Perhaps there is a single mother in your community, working a job that pays $10/hour, juggling childcare and household responsibilities, trying to pick up a class or two at the local community college. What does she need? She needs supportive family, friends, neighbors, and public policy that don’t further tax her mental bandwidth. She needs timely helping hands, an occasional day off, and political representatives and appointees that shape ethical public policy, in part, because they are in touch with her reality.

As for your next diet, Mullainathan and Shafir have a suggestion: Sabbath. The traditional Jewish practice of rejuvenation, tranquility, and rest, Sabbath encourages a break from normal activity. According to the co-authors, food deprivation and trade-offs (adding up allowed calories and carbs, depending on types of food consumed) are activities of self-imposed scarcity that tax one’s mental bandwidth. Psychologically, this type of dieting is exhausting. Consequently, take a day off from your diet when necessary. Don’t blow it or ruin it by consuming all things forbidden! But, be compassionate with yourself – allow for some fault tolerance. Relax and let your mind reboot. The very next day, get back on the diet and have a goal to stay on it for six days or so. Sabbath comes once a week, every seven days.

The long-term goal is new practice. The only diet that works is the one that acts as a bridge to new practice. Good ol’ proper diet and exercise – there’s no substitute for it. Sabbath might help you get there, to the “new you.”



This blog and website are representative of the views expressed in my book Just a Little Bit More: The Culture of Excess and the Fate of the Common Good. JaLBM, distributed by ACTA Publications (Chicago), is available on Amazon as a paperback and an ebook. It’s also available on Nook and iBooks/iTunes, and at the website of Blue Ocotillo Publishing.

isbn 9780991532827

If you’re a member of a faith community – Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, or other – consider a book study series of Just a Little Bit More. The full-length book (257 pgs.) is intended for engaged readers, whereas the Summary Version and Study Guide (52 pgs.) is intended for readers desiring a quick overview of the work. It also contains discussion questions at the end of all eight chapter summaries.

Readers of both books can join together for study, conversation, and subsequent action in support of the common good.




Meeting Taylor Branch

Whenever I buy a book* – new or used – I immediately write my name and the purchase month on the inside cover. I bought Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954-63 when we were living in Houston; I was starting out as a young pastor at Holy Cross Lutheran. I don’t remember exactly how in 1992 I came across Taylor Branch’s exhaustive tome of more than 1,000 pages detailing the crux of the civil rights era. ptwPerhaps I had heard it won the Pulitzer Prize for History, or maybe my ministry colleague Gene Fogt, a bona fide bibliophile, suggested I read it. The book was yet relatively fresh, published in 1988. We were living in Peru in the late ’80s, my seminary internship dictating how I spent the majority of my hours. Seven degrees south of the equator in Chiclayo, Peru, el bendito castellano occupied most of my free brain space, but I was able to do some “catch up” reading on the side – The Brothers Karamozov and Les Miserables, among others. I had always liked to read, but during my adolescent and early adult years, basketball and golf always took precedence over reading. I played some basketball in Peru for a city team, but didn’t touch a golf club for two years. I started to do a lot of reading on internship, and I continued to read extensively as we made it back to the States.

Once I started reading Parting the Waters, my focus did not waver. During the summer of ’92 all my free time dissipated into ardent observation of Martin Luther King, Fred Shuttlesworth, Septima Clark, John Lewis, Robert Moses, and the many other characters that forged the transformative movement. I was mesmerized; the reading filled me in on a part of my life that I had somehow missed. Born in the last week of 1961, growing up in the mostly white northwest suburbs of Chicago – yes, I missed it. When MLK was assassinated on April 4, 1968 in Memphis, I was all of six years of age. I don’t remember my parents saying anything to me about it. I certainly don’t blame them.

Parting the Waters, its Exodus imagery trumpeted, is unequivocally one of the best books I’ve ever read. Not only did it provide crucial historical tb sigdetails of the 20th century’s most formative events, it further shaped my understanding of ministry and vocation. People of faith, working together, can influence and even change society in accordance with a sense of what is understood to be God’s justice and love. The shackles can be broken – imagine that. Yes, the arc of the moral universe is long and it does bend toward justice.

Taylor Branch had more to tell; a second book was titled Pillar of Fire: America in the King Years, 1963-65. I remember waiting and waiting for it to come out. Not until 1998, ten years after the first, did the second volume of the promised trilogy see the light of day. I purchased Pillar immediately upon its release, but didn’t read it until 2001. It was as if I had waited too long for dinner and my hunger had passed. There was other stuff I was reading, our three kids commanded plenty of attention, and I was once again playing an occasional round of golf. Once I started to read Pillar, I remember feeling that Branch was like a juggler trying to keep so many balls in the air simultaneously. There were so many details and threads of the story in the years ’63-’65: Kennedy’s assassination, Vietnam, Malcom X, J. Edgar Hoover, the Klan, King’s Nobel Prize, Selma – just to mention a few. A very busy narrative, its primary focus no longer locked onto King. Pillar was good, but it couldn’t match Parting the Waters. No book ever has.

At Canaan’s Edge: America in the King Years, 1965-68, found Branch back on stride. Published in 2006, the final volume of the trilogy recaptured its focus on King with gripping narrative and historical detail, especially as it highlighted the crucial work of the backbone organizations of the civil rights movement – CORE, SNCC, and King’s own SCLC. I read Canaan in the spring of 2007; as with Parting the Waters, I could hardly put it down.

Another ritual to my book reading habit is to record the date that I finish reading a book on the inside back cover. It was with joy and regret that I wrote 5/18/07 alongside my initials when I finished reading Canaan. Joy for the story told and its teaching message; regret that there was no more to read.



tb and tcI met Taylor Branch in April 2015 after a lecture he gave at the University of Texas. The topic of the lecture covered his 2011 piece in The Atlantic, “The Shame of College Sports.” The Frank Deford Lecture on Sports Journalism speaker rearticulated his conviction that students who play sports at major universities (such as the University of Texas) need to be compensated financially. According to Branch, it’s a power issue. At the big-time colleges, administrators and coaches are paid extravagantly, which helps perpetuate a hierarchy where students are essentially powerless. I recommend reading the article if you haven’t – it’s conveniently hyperlinked above.

Branch provided good information for those of us interested in book reading, writing, and publishing. Writing was not his vocational goal after graduating from the University of North Carolina in 1968, but, nonetheless, he started working as a staff journalist for magazine publishers (Esquire and Harper’s) to pay the bills. Before long, he fancied himself a god-honest writer. He wanted to write books. He did some ghostwriting – for Watergate convict John Dean and basketball legend Bill Russell – but labored under the impression that real writers are novelists. In 1981 he produced his novel The Empire Blues. He said, in full self-deprecation mode, that “it sold all of 500 copies.”

He then procured a contract to produce a history of the civil rights movement and its era. The procurement wasn’t easy, and the contract was only for three years. Consequently, Branch did some other writing projects to keep himself and his family fed. Six years of research and writing finally came to fruition when Parting the Waters received stellar reviews and won Branch the 1988 Pulitzer Prize for History. Eighteen more years of research and writing would be required for Branch to finish out the landmark trilogy.

My three aforementioned kids are now adults. In the process of their college educations, I came up with the idea to present them some books, crucially important to me, that I hope would help shape their understanding of the world. Each of them receives the three same books, and then one or two books additionally as befits their particular personality and interests. Parting the Waters is the first book on the list that each of them receives; Dee Brown’s Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee and Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything complete the top three list.

I enjoyed visiting with Taylor Branch after the lecture. He was kind enough to inscribe my original copy of Parting the Waters and to receive a copy of my own Just a Little Bit More, posing for a picture to boot. American in the King Years is one set of many books that have influenced my thinking and inspired me to write JaLBM. Branch is a talented historian and journalist, but he’s gifted as a theologian as well. “King’s life is the best and most important metaphor for American history in the watershed postwar years” (from the preface of Parting the Waters).


Click here to purchase Just a Little Bit More: The Culture of Excess and the Fate of the Common Good. Paperback, $14.95. You will be redirected to the Blue Ocotillo Publishing website.

Click here if you prefer to purchase JaLBM from Amazon. Ebook available on Amazon, iBooks, and Nook.


*I do own a Kindle and enjoy reading ebooks; Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century was the first ebook I read on my Kindle. I thought I’d start with something light and short. Ahem. Read my review here.

A sidelight: I also met Frank Deford at the same event, the legendary journalist of Sports Illustrated and NPR fame. The University of Texas holds his archival writings, and presents the Frank Deford Lecture on Sports Journalism annually. I told him I always try to catch his NPR Morning Edition commentary on Wednesdays, which he has been doing since 1980. He has two and a half minutes by which to get his message across. I told him those pieces are like mini-sermons; he thought about that and said, “You’re right.” Keep preaching, Frank!

Pastor Brad Highum on “Just a Little Bit More”

Brad Highum, a pastor at Abiding Love Lutheran Church (ELCA) in Austin, highly recommends you and your congregation do a book study of Just a Little Bit More. As he emphasizes in the video clip below concerning social immobility, rising inequality, and elevated childhood poverty, “We have to know how we got here, in order to begin to address ideas about how we move from this place, how we move forward.”

Pastor Brad has been a passionate supporter of Just a Little Bit More from its very inception. Back in 2011, we lunched over gyro wraps at Phoenicia Bakery on South Lamar Boulevard in Austin. We sat on a picnic table outside in the hot fall wind (Phoenicia, abundantly stocked with Greek and Arab staples, doesn’t have indoor seating) and went back and forth about the 2007-08 economic swoon – and how our faith confronts what it has brought forth. Brad’s enthusiasm let me know that my thinking was on the right track.

The culmination of a three-year process, Just a Little Bit More, was published in May 2014. My own congregation, St. John’s/San Juan Lutheran in Austin, and Brad’s were the first congregations to participate in a book study of JaLBM. We conducted the studies concurrently with the purpose of compiling feedback and notes that would contribute toward a study guide for other faith communities.

I especially appreciate Brad’s comprehension and dissemination of JaLBM‘s message. Our faith does have something to say in mitigation of economic and social inequalities. Brad is absolutely “on point” in this video clip as he encourages others in faith communities to look into a book study of JaLBM.

I first met Brad Highum when he was a student at the Lutheran Seminary Program of the Southwest (LSPS). While studying for ordained ministry (and previous to), he was serving as minister of adult education and programs at Riverbend Church in Austin. Brad is an excellent teacher and preacher. His scripture knowledge and recall are superb; his interpretation is progressive. His fluid articulation pulls in listeners to understand the message being shared.

Pastor Brad and I both conducted seven week studies of JaLBM at our respective congregations. Halfway through the study, one of Brad’s congregants walked into the Sunday morning class at Abiding Love and gave Brad a knowing look. “Pastor Brad,” he offered, “this book is not a light read.”

Brad responded with a wink and a smile: “It’s not a light topic.”

Pastor Brad’s got a quick wit, too.


For the congregant at Abiding Love and others who are looking for an easier version of JaLBM to digest, the Summary Version and Study Guide is now available. Amazon and the Blue Ocotillo Publishing website offer it for $6.95 (52 pages); ebook version, $2.99.

isbn 9780991532827As stated above, Brad and the folks at Abiding Love (along with my folks at St. John’s/San Juan) helped shape the discussion questions at the end of all eight summarized chapters. Consequently, readers of the full-length version of JaLBM and the Summary Version and Study Guide can join in the same discussion with the purpose of “understanding how we got here” so that we might better – together – construct societal common good.

Just a Little Bit More: The Culture of Excess and the Fate of the Common Good – full-length version, 277 pages – is available wherever books and ebooks are sold.


The “Just a Little Bit More” Interview with Peter Steinke

I recently sat down with the Rev. Peter Steinke, the respected interpreter of Bowen/Friedman systems theory for churches and congregations. Also referred to as family systems theory, the concept sees families and organizations as emotionally interdependent units. The relationship between A and B within these units is mutually influenced and interactive rather than one-directional, cause and effect. Systems theory teaches adherents to think in overlapping arches, not in straight lines.

I’ve known Pete for twenty-five years as we’ve lived in proximity of one another in the Houston and Austin areas. Whether from personal consultations in ministry settings or public presentations, I’ve benefitted immensely from his wisdom and insight. Pete was instrumental in helping me write Just a Little Bit More, with suggestions and comments at all phases of the process. The excellent foreword he wrote for JaLBM reflects his solidarity with the book’s perspective. The author of Healthy Congregations and Congregational Leadership in Anxious Times has a new book coming out this spring: Teaching Fish to Walk. This new work emphasizes adaptive challenges as the vehicle to bring about positive and healthy changes in congregations.

Peter Steinke

Societal life in the post-9/11 world is never more than a moment away from elevated anxiety. Recent events from terroristic attacks in Paris and San Bernadino, California to calls from politicians and political candidates to be wary of Mexican immigrants, Muslims, and Syrian refugees have raised societal anxiety in America. I asked Pete – pastor, psychologist, educator, and author with extensive experience working with individuals and congregations in conflictual situations – to comment on these and related issues.

JaLBM: How do you see what systems theory calls “societal regression” playing out in our current context?

Steinke: When people become more anxious, they tend to blame others more easily. People take less responsibility for their own lives and their own pain. When people are anxious they’ll either focus their anxiety upon persons in charge – presidents, school principals, pastors, parents – or upon the most vulnerable. Currently this vulnerable group consists of Muslims, Mexicans, immigrants, refugees – those who are “outsiders.”

Anxiety is not a negative. Anxiety just is. It becomes a negative when it intensifies or becomes prolonged, because it interferes with clear thinking. Anxiety is an informer, rather than an enemy. It tells us something about ourselves and the world around us.

Neurologically we’re designed to assume something is bad because the lower brain is on the outlook for something that might create a problem. That’s the lower brain’s job. Yet, the lower brain has no sense of time. So, something that was a stimulus in the past that activated your anxiety, when it happens again – boom – it goes off and you’re in an elevated state of anxiety.

JaLBM: Donald Trump, as a presidential candidate, has achieved sustained popularity. From a systems point of view, what do you see behind this phenomenon?

Steinke: For some people, Donald Trump has named the demon. And when you name the demon, people feel you have power over the demon.

As a society, we’re vulnerable to a demigod, to somebody who has all the answers, who is impressive, who has a sense of power and charisma. Everyone else in comparison to this person looks weak and ineffective. This type of behavior – acceding demigod status to someone – is grounded in anxiety.  We know in actuality no such person exists. When you’re at the low end of things and it’s not working out for you, it’s very easy to look up to that person who could lift you up and lift society up.

JaLBM: As a society, we have a tendency to esteem those who are “financially successful.” This is also part of his charm . . .

Steinke: When the economy is declining or people perceive it to be, societal anxiety is aroused. Money is a great arouser of anxiety.

JaLBM: What is the adaptive challenge – to use your phrase – for American society at this moment?

Steinke: We’ve got to work together more often, rather than each staying in their own little silo and doing things solo. But when you’re anxious, what do you do? You pull apart, you separate, you get into your own little fortress, which is the opposite of what we need to do.

How can we use our commonalities instead of our differences to do what motivates us to do what we need? We’re here to cooperate with one another – that’s civil society.

Anxiety pulls us apart because anxiety magnifies differences. That’s a key understanding of anxiety. It magnifies the differences that we have. And until we can reduce the anxiety, the chances we have of doing things together is diminished.

JaLBM: Tell us a little more about your new book, Teaching Fish to Walk.

Steinke: A study of a type of bichir fish that lives in shallow water habitats in Africa provides the name for the book. Researchers put them on land and compared the test group’s progress to that of a control group that stayed in the water. The test group learned to walk within eight months. These fish did not learn to walk until they were confronted with an adaptive challenge. They had to change their physiology.

My point is that in the church we’re not going to find people changing in adaptive ways until we break with how we’ve done things in the past.

Fewer people are coming to us – in our congregations. It only makes sense that we’ve got to go to them. We have to find ways to live out the life of who we are or who we want to be in the world . . .

JaLBM: The day and age of people coming to us is over.

Steinke: It’s over. It’s true of lots of organizations, not just the church. We don’t have the belongers like we used to. And it’s true of all kinds of groups. Volunteering for the Red Cross and scouting is down. We do have groups, like AARP, the NRA, and the Sierra Club that are stable, but you’re a member by writing a check. That’s the extent of your participation.

JaLBM: In what direction do churches and religious organizations need to go?

Steinke: We know that change is resisted less if it’s connected to an organization’s purpose, or sense of mission.

A lot of groups today have forgotten why they’re here. They’ve lost touch with their mission. I’m talking about churches and other groups. As I asked previously: Why are we here? We’re here to cooperate with one another.

(Interview conducted on December 31, 2015 in Austin, Texas.)


This blog and website are representative of the views expressed in my book Just a Little Bit More: The Culture of Excess and the Fate of the Common Good. JaLBM, distributed by ACTA Publications (Chicago), is available on Amazon as a paperback and an ebook. It’s also available on Nook and iBooks/iTunes, and at the website of Blue Ocotillo Publishing.

isbn 9780991532827

If you’re a member of a faith community – Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, or other – consider a book study series of Just a Little Bit More. The full-length book (257 pgs.) is intended for engaged readers, whereas the Summary Version and Study Guide (52 pgs.) is intended for readers desiring a quick overview of the work. It also contains discussion questions at the end of all eight chapter summaries.

Readers of both books can join together for study, conversation, and subsequent action in support of the common good.