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.