We usually think of money when the word poverty is employed. But, just like getting caught in a high interest loan cycle, we can get in trouble by borrowing too much time, having a list of deadlines we continually fall behind on, forcing us to focus on the immediate next deadline, just like the next loan payment due. Konnikova points
to the consequence of situations like these, bandwidth poverty:
If I’m focused on the immediate deadline, I don’t have the cognitive resources to spend on mundane tasks or later deadlines. If I’m short on money, I can’t stop thinking about today’s expenses — never mind those in the future. In both cases, I end up making decisions that leave me worse off because I lack the ability to focus properly on anything other than what’s staring me in the face right now, at this exact moment...
She quotes a Princeton psychologist:
Under scarcity, you devote a lot of resources to the thing you’re lacking...When people are juggling time, they are doing something very similar to when they’re juggling finances. It is all scarcity juggling. You borrow from tomorrow, and tomorrow you have less time than you have today, and tomorrow becomes more costly. It’s a very costly loan.
When you get overloaded and you feel this deadline is overwhelming, you can say, I’ll take a vacation, I’ll focus on work-life balance...Poor people can’t say, ‘I’ll take a vacation from being poor.’ It’s the same mental process, but a different feedback loop.The poor are under a deadline that never lifts, pressure that can’t be relieved. If I am poor, I work or I churn until decisions like buying lottery tickets begin to seem like attractive alternatives. I lack the time to calculate the odds and think of alternative uses for my money...the mental bandwidth tax is powerful enough to make the overall problem run deeper. The poor... are so taxed they don’t even realize they have a problem...AND of course how much money you have affects how much time you have. If you keep busyness constant, the rich have it much easier...they can buy nannies and drivers and lawyers and the like. It’s easy to give yourself time if you have money.
If poverty is about time and mental bandwidth as well as money, how does this change how we combat its effects? When we think about programs for the poor, we don’t ever think, hey, let’s give them programs that don’t use a lot of bandwidth...Instead, we fault people for failing to sign up for programs that are ostensibly available, even though we don’t factor in the time and cognitive capacity they need to get past even the first step...Take something like the Fafsa” — the Free Application for Federal Student Aid — Why is pickup for the low-income families less than 30 percent? People are already overwhelmed, and you go and give them an incredibly complicated form...One study found that if you offer help with filling out the Fafsa form, pickup goes up significantly.
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