Poverty, culture, economics

If you’re at all interested in the science of willpower, self-control, or decision-making (and I am) you really should read John Tierney’s excellent NYT Magazine piece on the subject. Here’s one nugget:

Spears and other researchers argue that this sort of decision fatigue is a major — and hitherto ignored — factor in trapping people in poverty. Because their financial situation forces them to make so many trade-offs, they have less willpower to devote to school, work and other activities that might get them into the middle class. It’s hard to know exactly how important this factor is, but there’s no doubt that willpower is a special problem for poor people. Study after study has shown that low self-control correlates with low income as well as with a host of other problems, including poor achievement in school, divorce, crime, alcoholism and poor health. Lapses in self-control have led to the notion of the “undeserving poor” — epitomized by the image of the welfare mom using food stamps to buy junk food — but Spears urges sympathy for someone who makes decisions all day on a tight budget. In one study, he found that when the poor and the rich go shopping, the poor are much more likely to eat during the shopping trip. This might seem like confirmation of their weak character — after all, they could presumably save money and improve their nutrition by eating meals at home instead of buying ready-to-eat snacks like Cinnabons, which contribute to the higher rate of obesity among the poor. But if a trip to the supermarket induces more decision fatigue in the poor than in the rich — because each purchase requires more mental trade-offs — by the time they reach the cash register, they’ll have less willpower left to resist the Mars bars and Skittles. Not for nothing are these items called impulse purchases.

When we talk about poverty, we inevitably talk about various “cultural” issues, by which we mostly mean “non-economic” issues. Economic improvement can’t pull people out of poverty until we solve various cultural issues that are holding people back, or so the story goes. But we should really look at these as all part of the same cycle. Being poor puts you at a distinct and empirically demonstrable disadvantage when it comes to exerting self-control. Lack of self-control tends to play a large role in life outcomes. Much of what we think of as the “culture” of poverty may in fact be very much an economic issue.