Skip to content
CityLab
Government

The High Cost of Not Having Enough

More on poverty and cognitive bandwidth.
relates to The High Cost of Not Having Enough
Reuters

Last week I wrote about an important new study, published in the journal Science, that found that poverty itself – coping with the ever-present state of not having enough to live on – taxes the brain to the point where the poor move through life as if experiencing the equivalent of a missed night of sleep. Living in poverty requires so many mental puzzles and trade-offs that the rest of us never confront: Should I pay for groceries or gas? If I take a second job, who will collect my child from school? What's worse: the steep price of a payday loan, or the late fee that will come from missing another utility bill?

All of these questions suck up so much mental bandwidth that the poor are left with little cognitive capacity to succeed in tasks that seem wholly unrelated to money. Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir, two of the authors of that study, describe it this way in a much more in-depth new book that grew out of some of this same research, Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much: