Scarcity, and the state of being short on a resource, is a monumental problem in many aspects of daily life, the two most prominent probably being money and time. CBC radio recently broadcasted an episode on The Current: “Why scarcity shapes our lives in profound ways,” and the guest speaker was Eldar Shafir, a psychology professor and the co-author of a recently published book titled Why Having Too Little Means So Much. Shafir puts forward the idea that having less money can impact cognitive intelligence—however, not in the sense of low-income hindering one’s access to education, which probably would’ve been my first guess, but more in an actual psychological sense, exploring where our energy, or mental “bandwidth,” is being exerted.
Shafir used bandwidth as a metaphor for the human brain, and explained how we have limited capacity to store and juggle information.
“There are three decades of research showing that if I give you a seven digit number to keep in mind and not forget, you attend less to other things,” explains Shafir. “You forget to pay your parking meter because your mind is busy remembering this information.” The professor also says that when you’re so preoccupied with memorizing and keeping constant check on your finances, you may budget decently but other important things in your life are neglected as a result.
“We define it (scarcity) very behaviourly,” said Shafir. “No specific number. It’s a psychology that comes with feeling like you just don’t have enough of the things you feel you need: food, friends, time, and money.”
As I was listening to the conversation, I noted the key words “feel you need,” and shortly after the professor addressed my concern with the word “need.” He pointed out that, when we consider what we need in the world, we need to put “emphasis on the time and place of where you live.” Standards of comparison is probably the key point. “‘What do you mean the poor in Canada?’” says Shafir, addressing the misconception that poor in a first-world country isn’t really poor. “‘In India they would be middle class. Look, they have running water and shirts!’ But 300 years ago that was a luxury. As we progress, certain things that used to be a luxury now have become what is acceptable to live in a modern day Canada or America.”
And I think it’s that expectation—from institutes, employers, and society in general—that makes it difficult to live without some things commonly dubbed “first world privileges.”
Shafir goes on to explain how income can make the difference between an inconvenience and tragedy for people. According to Shafir, studies show that when people of higher income are told they will need, for example, a costly car repair, they are able to accept the information and move forward. But when a low income individual hears the same news, their cognitive abilities drop significantly, approximately ten IQ points, which is the equivalent to how you may function the day after pulling an all-nighter.
So does being poor mean that you’re stupid? Obviously not, but if we consider Shafir’s research on the relationship between low-income and cognitive intelligence, we could conclude that the mental energy exerted on problem-solving for financial stresses is sure as heck time consuming. In other words, it’s hard to develop your potentially incredible cognitive abilities when you’re using most of your mental bandwidth trying to figure out how to both eat and pay rent. But these are the things that consume your mind when you’re poor.
At work a couple weeks ago, I worked out in my head how long I’d have to work if I bought a slice of pizza for lunch. Minimum wage and over-priced pizza: about a half hour of work for enriched-wheat flour dough and processed cheese. While it seems silly to use so much brain-power over a few dollars, these are the kind of budgeting decisions people living with low-income have to constantly make. Of course, I consider myself to be a broke student by choice (I could take out a student loan, but choose not to), but many don’t have that luxury.
When the interviewer asked Shafir if lacking money is worse than being scarce in other aspects of life, the professor pointed out that being poor isn’t usually a choice.
“If you’re dieting, it takes a lot of your mind, but if you have a very important test coming up, you can say ‘you know what, three or four days I’ll focus on the exam and go back to dieting on Monday.’ When you’re poor you can’t say, “well, I’ll take a day off and go back to being poor on Monday.”
I know it’s highly idealistic to say, but I can’t help wonder how struggling minimum wage workers might thrive otherwise if their minds weren’t constantly consumed by flipping burgers and scouring for coupons to make ends meet.