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Why Can’t More Poor People Escape Poverty?
June 6, 2011 2:37 PM   Subscribe

Psychologists are now theorizing that humans have a depletable reservoir of self-control, and that this is why poor people remain poor.
posted by reenum (118 comments total) 47 users marked this as a favorite

 
Oh jesus, really?
posted by edheil at 2:40 PM on June 6, 2011 [3 favorites]


Those silly poor people. Why can't they just stop being so fucking poor and be rich instead?
posted by dirtylittlecity at 2:41 PM on June 6, 2011 [30 favorites]


Are you more yourself when self-controlled or less?
posted by TwelveTwo at 2:42 PM on June 6, 2011 [2 favorites]


Red herring. It's not why they remain poor. It's why the myth of the bootstrap is just that. Poor people remain poor because of the way the distribution of resources is set up from the highest economic and political levels on down. But individually, they "fail" to succeed in this rigged game because they're too exhausted from the choices of daily living to overcome the odds.
posted by liketitanic at 2:43 PM on June 6, 2011 [93 favorites]


Poor people unwilling, unable to locate bootstraps
posted by 2bucksplus at 2:43 PM on June 6, 2011 [10 favorites]


I would say this is bad journalism rather than bad research. They've taken straightforward research and drawn grandiose unsupported conclusions.
posted by GuyZero at 2:44 PM on June 6, 2011 [5 favorites]


Well, it depends. Some people do not stay poor, while others do things counterproductive to getting out of poverty. Then there are those who work their butts off but because of the way the system is set up keep getting dragged back down. Poverty is not a one size fits all system.
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 2:44 PM on June 6, 2011 [6 favorites]


Why can't they just stop being so fucking poor and be rich instead?

But don't you see? The New Republic has clearly answered that question with SCIENCE! It's because they lack the willpower.

That was the most terrible thing I've read in weeks, including Shit My Students Write. Do we need to start a Tumblr for sub-undergraduate-level "journalistic" writing?
posted by RogerB at 2:47 PM on June 6, 2011 [2 favorites]


Poor people gotta poor.
posted by blue_beetle at 2:47 PM on June 6, 2011 [2 favorites]


It seems like folks are jumping in without reading about the research. The idea that poverty can become a vicious cycle because dealing with finances is incredibly stressful when you're already poor seems like a pretty reasonable idea to me.
posted by svenx at 2:49 PM on June 6, 2011 [46 favorites]


"if you have enough money, deciding whether to buy the soap only requires considering whether you want it, not what you might have to give up to get it."

So the more the brain is put to use, the weaker it get's. What about the learning thing.....
posted by choppyes at 2:49 PM on June 6, 2011 [1 favorite]


Sometimes, from a privileged position where you usually know where your next meal is coming from and that you'll probably have a roof over your head next month, it's easy to contrast "counterproductive" people with those who "work their butts off".

It's not, nor has it ever been, that simple.

Poverty is not a one size fits all system.

Nor is it a dichotomy of "lazy" vs. "hard-working."
posted by Zozo at 2:49 PM on June 6, 2011 [6 favorites]


The article is actually quite sympathetic, in my opinion. I suggest everyone read first.
posted by jefficator at 2:49 PM on June 6, 2011 [10 favorites]


Those silly poor people. Why can't they just stop being so fucking poor and be rich instead?

Did you read the article? I thought it was a pretty sympathetic explanation that shows that the very circumstances of poverty make poverty hard to escape. I don't see how you draw the conclusion that it is poor people's fault.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 2:49 PM on June 6, 2011 [14 favorites]


Taken from an example in the paper:

If a doughnut costs twenty-five cents...

That truly is a magical land where no one is poor.

2bucksplus: Poor people unwilling, unable to locate bootstraps

jscalzi:
Being poor is people surprised to discover you’re not actually lazy.
Being poor is knowing you’re being judged.
Being poor is knowing exactly how much everything costs.

posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 2:50 PM on June 6, 2011 [28 favorites]


"When shit becomes valuable, the poor will be born without assholes."

- Henry Miller
posted by Mister Fabulous at 2:51 PM on June 6, 2011 [8 favorites]


"It's because they lack the willpower."

No. It clearly says they have the same amount as well-off people, but they have more demands on their will power owing to having to make more difficult choices about how to allocate their resources. I'd say it's your reading comprehension that's terrible.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 2:52 PM on June 6, 2011 [32 favorites]


I don't know how it fits into the original post, but I wanted to point out that Charles Karelis has another hypothesis regarding poverty:
Poverty and wealth, by this logic, don't just fall along a continuum the way hot and cold or short and tall do. They are instead fundamentally different experiences, each working on the human psyche in its own way. At some point between the two, people stop thinking in terms of goods and start thinking in terms of problems, and that shift has enormous consequences. Perhaps because economists, by and large, are well-off, he suggests, they've failed to see the shift at all.
Liberal Mike Konczal and Libertarian Tyler Cowen have written about Karelis' work favorably, with the latter (!) noting the following
"Getting tough" with the poor through policy is more likely to backfire than succeed, as it just encourages more mean-reducing, risk-taking behavior. At some level the marginal utility of consumption for the poor fits the standard model, so income effects will more likely bring normal behavior than will substitution effects.
Which is to say, I hope this thread doesn't turn into an attack on poor people...there is much to this story.
posted by Hypnotic Chick at 2:54 PM on June 6, 2011 [12 favorites]


Reading or continuing my job hunt ... that was a big decision. Now I'm exhausted again.
posted by Surfurrus at 2:54 PM on June 6, 2011 [3 favorites]


In 1998, researchers at Case Western Reserve University published some of the young movement’s first returns. Roy Baumeister, Ellen Bratslavsky, Mark Muraven, and Dianne Tice set up a simple experiment. They had food-deprived subjects sit at a table with two types of food on it: cookies and chocolates; and radishes. Some of the subjects were instructed to eat radishes and resist the sweets, and afterwards all were put to work on unsolvable geometric puzzles. Resisting the sweets, independent of mood, made participants give up more than twice as quickly on the geometric puzzles. Resisting temptation, the researchers found, seemed to have “produced a ‘psychic cost.’”

Wait, it couldn't possibly be that eating radishes didn't provide the same level of glucose rush to the brain to be burned up thinking about unsolvable geometric problems, could it?
posted by hippybear at 2:56 PM on June 6, 2011 [9 favorites]


I hate radishes. I'd be unable to do math problems if forced to eat them. I'd starve before eating radishes.
posted by GuyZero at 2:59 PM on June 6, 2011 [3 favorites]


and afterwards all were put to work on unsolvable geometric puzzles.

That's just fucked up.
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 3:00 PM on June 6, 2011 [5 favorites]


Here is a nice translation for everyone:

Being poor is hard mode for capitalism.
posted by TwelveTwo at 3:00 PM on June 6, 2011 [13 favorites]


If only I had been born rich, so that I could go my entire life without ever needing to exercise self-control.

That way I wouldn't use it up, and could easily exercise my vast, untapped reservoirs of proper self-control when it came to really important things, later in life, like once I get a job in Congress.
posted by mstokes650 at 3:02 PM on June 6, 2011 [8 favorites]


I've read it before, but that jscalzi link is fucking devastating.
posted by jnrussell at 3:04 PM on June 6, 2011 [4 favorites]


Did you read the article? I thought it was a pretty sympathetic explanation that shows that the very circumstances of poverty make poverty hard to escape. I don't see how you draw the conclusion that it is poor people's fault.

I don't see how you could draw the conclusion that I was being anything but facetious.
posted by dirtylittlecity at 3:06 PM on June 6, 2011 [1 favorite]


If it weren't for the poor, who would bother with buying lottery tickets? Someone has to help pay taxes and it certainly is not going to be the very rich.
posted by Postroad at 3:07 PM on June 6, 2011 [3 favorites]


I hope this thread doesn't turn into an attack on poor people

Does anyone on any planet think this is even a remote possibility?
posted by Glinn at 3:08 PM on June 6, 2011 [5 favorites]


What hippybear said. Plus I know from personal experience I love life after eating cookies and chocolates so's I'd probably work on your damned intractable square-the-circle bullshit a little bit more. Do you have some chocolate?
posted by user92371 at 3:09 PM on June 6, 2011 [1 favorite]


I'd say it's your reading comprehension that's terrible.

This is a truly shitty way to invite further discussion.

Yes, your thumbnail summary is semi-accurate, in that the article does report some research about economic decisions being more willpower-draining for poor people. But this does not refute my parody version of its "the poor lack willpower" idiocy. This is so because the writer, who works for a neoliberal think tank and is obviously steeped in neoliberal victim-blaming about poverty as a matter of individual choices and actions rather than structural exploitation, makes a totally unfounded claim that "poor people's willpower is drained by economic life" can somehow ground a causal account of why poor people remain poor, writing that "Poverty may reduce free will, making it even harder for the poor to escape their circumstances." It is totally unwarranted by anything in the reported research, and purely ideologically motivated, that the piece gives an individualized, psychologized account of the causes of problems which are really caused by economic and social systems — and predictably enough, the author breezily waves off "structural barriers" and spends most of the second half of the article on atomized-invididual solutions to social problems, as if solar panels could cure exploitation.
posted by RogerB at 3:12 PM on June 6, 2011 [12 favorites]


When you are poor, and live on an estate with a head full of worry: money worries, will your kids be safe worries, estate life worries, job centre worries, it must get pretty stressful. I don't agree with the premise that there is a reservoir of self-control, but all the stress of worrying means you can't think about anything else, and shurely this will impact on any trade-off decisions you make. As Lynsey Hanley says in "Estates", there is a wall in the mind of people who live on estates, and this worry make up part of the wall.
posted by marienbad at 3:15 PM on June 6, 2011


Well either it could be that poor people have exhausted their reserves of self-control or possibly... just possibly it could be that 400 American oligarchs own more of America's wealth then 160 million Americans ?

I wonder which explanation makes more sense?
posted by Poet_Lariat at 3:15 PM on June 6, 2011 [10 favorites]


I've read it before, but that jscalzi link is fucking devastating.

I hadn't read it before, and you're not kidding. "Being poor is crying when you drop the mac and cheese on the floor" just crushed me. Thanks for linking that, justsomebody.
posted by mstokes650 at 3:16 PM on June 6, 2011 [3 favorites]


Glinn,

Point taken. What I mean is that the article seems to direct its attention toward the willpower deficiencies of poor people. I am not buying it and I think that such an approach is a subtle attack on policies that may ameliorate poverty ("what these people need is to toughen up, not get aid").

My intention was to point out an alternative thesis that suggests that most people would respond to poverty the way the poor do. It isn't because because of a self-control deficiency but because recognizing increasing marginal utility (which Konczal writes about) in their circumstance, and acting accordingly describes the way of how most of us behave. At least that's the idea.
posted by Hypnotic Chick at 3:22 PM on June 6, 2011


Yes, nthing the jscalzi link. Poignantly beautiful.

Also, in the article, he says 2 types of food, and then lists "choloclate and cookies, and radish" which shurely is 3? Is this guy really a psychologist? He can't even count.
posted by marienbad at 3:23 PM on June 6, 2011


I'd starve before eating radishes.

You asshole! You think you're too good to eat radishes? Let me riff on Scalzi.

Being poor is going without your blood pressure meds because you can't afford the $4 Medicare copay.

Being poor is going to pay some of your rent in cash and returning to find an eviction notice taped to your door.

Being poor is deciding you can afford the $4 gas to visit the food bank, because it's on the way back from paying your rent.

Being poor is knowing which kinds of expired foods are still edible.

Being poor is eating the fucking radishes when you see what the alternatives are.
posted by charlie don't surf at 3:24 PM on June 6, 2011 [9 favorites]


Why not a corresponding article about the willpower deficiencies of the rich, like when they fuck their housekeepers and invade other countries?
posted by No Robots at 3:26 PM on June 6, 2011 [18 favorites]


In the context of being a university student recruited into a psychology dept test for $5, if offered radishes, I wouldn't eat them.

Being poor is eating the fucking radishes when you see what the alternatives are.

Radishes aren't super-expensive but I don't think of them as a staple food for poor people. Chances are I wouldn't eat radishes even if I was poor due to their poor shelf life and relatively low calorie density.
posted by GuyZero at 3:27 PM on June 6, 2011 [2 favorites]


I saw that first line above the fold of this FPP and thought: OH DAMNIT THIS IS ROY BAUMEISTER TROLLING AGAIN ISN'T IT... and I was right.

Can't we just have a moratorium on the bullshit that comes out of his mouth? I met him at a conference once*, he gave an idiotic lecture to a whole conference room full of old people who knew better shaking there heads and young people who didn't looking confused. I was one of those young people and went to the reception, conveniently intended for lecturers to meet young college students right afterwards with a bunch of my fellow undergrads. There we patiently explained exactly why he was absolutely wrong while I cited studies in real time on my, then new, laptop. He got increasingly flustered, and his explanations got increasingly racist to the point where his friends started trying to get him out of the room so he wouldn't cause more damage.

I got a free copy of his hilariously stupid intro to psychology textbook from his publisher at the end of the conference and when he got up to object I talked him into signing it. Ahhh, good times.

Where was I, oh yeah, this douche has been a troll for decades.

*WAPA in Vancouver ~2008
posted by Blasdelb at 3:28 PM on June 6, 2011 [15 favorites]


This is a truly shitty way to invite further discussion.

Heh. Except you replied with something detailed that made sense, instead of a driveby caricature. I can't know what deep thoughts you were having if you don't post them.

I agree that the focus on individual factors rather than structural ones can be part of narrative that argues that is no need for structural change, and in that way this article is unhelpful or even distracting.

Where I live, the right wing government is poised to make huge changes to the welfare system and there is a lot of rhetoric going around about how poor people make poor choices, trying to label them as authors of their own misfortune and hence justifying these changes. Articles that present a sympathetic account are useful in countering this.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 3:28 PM on June 6, 2011 [1 favorite]


At the food bank, where I was today, I've seen people elbow each other out of the way to scour through a box of limp, expired vegetables, and smiling with glee when they pulled out a bunch of radishes.
posted by charlie don't surf at 3:29 PM on June 6, 2011 [3 favorites]


Look, I have been poor before and I have lived around other poor people. Some poor people make great decisions and still remain poor while others make foolish decisions (let some lazy git move in with them, eat all their food stamp groceries up then leave them, get pregnant when the father doesn't have means or desire to support the baby, decide a pack of smokes is better than putting that money aside for the rent...etc. etc. ) Most poor people are a mixture of the above, to include myself when I was in that category. In my opinion there is really no "typical" poor person, but for a lot of people in the category I do agree the deck is stacked against them.
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 3:30 PM on June 6, 2011 [2 favorites]


Point taken. What I mean is that the article seems to direct its attention toward the willpower deficiencies of poor people. I am not buying it and I think that such an approach is a subtle attack on policies that may ameliorate poverty ("what these people need is to toughen up, not get aid").

I agree with you, and I think the article is pseudo-scientific trash. But just to play devil's advocate, I think the logical consequence of the article's assertion would call for an increase in welfare benefits. If we take the assumption that people remain poor because the daily decisions that poverty forces on them saps their willpower, then wouldn't state programs that make these decisions easier (ie, by providing food and medical care) make it easier for people to escape poverty?
posted by heathkit at 3:32 PM on June 6, 2011 [1 favorite]


There we patiently explained exactly why he was absolutely wrong while I cited studies in real time on my, then new, laptop.

I don't know shit about Roy Baumeister. Can you explain a bit more why he is infamous? His wiki page looks self-written. Although, reading a bit more, his list of upcoming titles doesn't look too promising:
- Is There Anything Good About Men?: How Cultures Flourish by Exploiting Men
- Free Will and Consciousness: How Might They Work?
- Advanced Social Psychology: The State of the Science
posted by benzenedream at 3:38 PM on June 6, 2011


We bitch and moan and fight to the tooth and nail about what "race" means in America. It is class that we should be worried about and has been for a long time. Consequentially it is what we tend to avoid talking about, because it gets us labeled as socialist and unAmerican. Horatio fucking Alger is so ingrained in our heads.. .whats the line? There are no poor people in America, just temporally embarrassed millionaires... something like that.

As well... When I feed the poor, they call me a saint, but when I ask why the poor are hungry, they call me a communist.
posted by edgeways at 3:39 PM on June 6, 2011 [9 favorites]


This is the line in Scalzi's post that always kills me: Being poor is having to live with choices you didn’t know you made when you were 14 years old.

If I could only go back and tell 14 year old me how things were going to end up, heh.
posted by elsietheeel at 3:47 PM on June 6, 2011 [6 favorites]


I don't know how it fits into the original post, but I wanted to point out that Charles Karelis has another hypothesis regarding poverty:

Charles Karelis has an interesting take on poverty. In my opinion, this is a more worthwhile article as it is adapted from his book.
posted by BigSky at 3:51 PM on June 6, 2011 [1 favorite]


Purchasing decisions that the wealthy can base entirely on preference, like buying dinner, require rigorous tradeoff calculations for the poor. As Princeton psychologist Eldar Shafir formulated the point in a recent talk, for the poor, “almost everything they do requires tradeoff thinking. It’s distracting, it’s depleting … and it leads to error.” The poor have to make financial tradeoff decisions, as Shafir put it, “on anything above a muffin.” -- (from the article)

I'm not really passing judgement on the overall message of this article/study, but I think this as a premise hits on something that most middle class people don't really get, at least in my experience (based on growing up in a working class community and now having a lot of friends who grew up upper middle class and witnessing the way that friends from each world make their decisions).

Being poor is more than not being able to buy x-item. It means that money is the context of every decision you make. Literally, almost every decision, money is a factor. It radically shifts the way that you perceive the world so that you see it in terms of limitations rather than possibilities.
posted by geegollygosh at 4:06 PM on June 6, 2011 [31 favorites]


Worry bad. Money good. Wow, science is tough, sometimes.

It all adds up to a giant fucking waste of time if the structural problems that make some rich and many poor is never addressed.

(And, yes, I get it. I have been "self-employed" for 3 years now. I worry constantly. Paying the mortgage is my existence, for the most part. Forget doctors' visits and all the "extras". It'll wear you down.)
posted by Benny Andajetz at 4:11 PM on June 6, 2011 [2 favorites]


is are
posted by Benny Andajetz at 4:14 PM on June 6, 2011


The article is actually quite sympathetic, in my opinion. I suggest everyone read first.

You're new here, aren't you?
posted by ZenMasterThis at 4:22 PM on June 6, 2011 [1 favorite]


It all adds up to a giant fucking waste of time if the structural problems that make some rich and many poor is never addressed.

Assuming this research holds up, this seems like the epitome of a "structural problem."
posted by bjrubble at 4:47 PM on June 6, 2011


Let's just note that Baumeister has published a huge quantity of peer-reviewed articles in top journals. He's not some crank.
posted by shivohum at 4:51 PM on June 6, 2011 [1 favorite]


Clearly the solution is to move to a communist society so nobody has to make spending choices, everyone will have lots of willpower remaining. They will spend that willpower on improving their social connections and morality and achieve richness in that instead.
posted by xdvesper at 5:00 PM on June 6, 2011


This premise seems silly, but using expendable "Will Points" might make for an interesting game mechanic in any upcoming Escape From Poverty RPG (where all the circumstance modifiers are negative).
posted by Winnemac at 5:15 PM on June 6, 2011 [1 favorite]


I thought the article was interesting, and it's certainly not unsympathetic. The take-home message is that things are hard for poor people in ways that rich people can't comprehend. Isn't that just what jscalzi was saying?
posted by Joe in Australia at 5:21 PM on June 6, 2011 [2 favorites]


heathkit,
Perhaps, but I the article suggests "willpower strengthening". Now, the researchers point to this sort of thing as being successful in children, but I can imagine unethical, yet entrepreneurial folks misapplying the research (and government funds) in order to provide such strengthening.

For me, this is at the core of the problem. A couple of months ago, some privately run-publicly funded employment agency in Florida decided to buy red capes for their unemployed clientele. That one was complete bs, but a "self-control strengthening" program with the veneer of science is the sort of thing I'd imagine would crop up and would be difficult to phase-out once it did.
posted by Hypnotic Chick at 5:24 PM on June 6, 2011


I feel that way. I feel like I COULD do something with my life or make some real money, but it's easier to play XBox and surf TV Tropes and MeFi. It's an effort to make any positive change.
posted by Lovecraft In Brooklyn at 5:34 PM on June 6, 2011


Oh, dear LIB: you're so smart and your brain obviously works so well. You really should overcome your own personal inertia and find a focus which will move your life forward in some meaningful way. Even if you only impact a couple of dozen people with your efforts, that will be a couple of dozen people who will have a better lot in life than if you had done nothing, and it's a couple of dozen people who will tell others about you. And it's only through word of mouth that we truly find immortality in this forgetful existence.

It's easier, but it's not more worthwhile. I have faith in your abilities to find a path toward immortality. Do you?
posted by hippybear at 5:39 PM on June 6, 2011 [3 favorites]


Metafilter: It seems like folks are jumping in without reading.
posted by dave78981 at 5:43 PM on June 6, 2011 [1 favorite]


Whilst I wholeheartedly agree that this piece is a transparent attempt to individualise social problems, and thus avoid questioning the environment that produces such outcomes, there is some interesting science behind executive function - what we might call making decisions - and it's true that making decisions is harder, and gets harder every decision we make. Here's the kicker, it doesn't matter if the decision is a big one or small one; they are all exhausting.

Tough Choices: How making decisions tires your brain. The takeout: Don't make important decisions at the end of the day. Do them straight after breakfast!
posted by smoke at 6:03 PM on June 6, 2011 [4 favorites]


No healthy, able-bodied person was ever so poor that they couldn't pick up their own trash.

We can differ on the meaning of healthy and able-bodied. But still.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 6:03 PM on June 6, 2011


The idea of a limited reservoir of willpower and/or self-control makes a lot of sense to me as a depressed person. Every so often someone at work or in my personal life makes a comment about how I could be doing so much better at this or that if I just applied myself instead of seeming not to care or being lazy or whatever. What I don't say, because really what's the point, is that I spend a lot, like an extraordinary amount, of my energy on getting myself to get up and move around and not die. I'm being reasonably productive in some fairly basic areas, but that doesn't leave me with a lot of energy or will for the stuff most people consider important. There's a fairly popular disability analogy called "spoon theory" that seems to go along with this as well.

I'm not comparing my situation, or Christine Miserandino's, to poverty directly (nor mine to hers, for that matter). But it doesn't seem difficult to extrapolate that the energy required to compensate for a lack of privilege has to come from somewhere and is probably not inexhaustible.
posted by Errant at 6:10 PM on June 6, 2011 [20 favorites]


I love radishes and I generally don't like sweets. I might be a rabbit.

Also, I thought this article was interesting and sympathetic. People who have to worry about the mac and cheese hitting the floor have a fundamentally different worldview from someone who has four computers for convenience's sake, or whatever. It makes sense that being poor is stressful and could induce self-destructive behaviors.
posted by Sticherbeast at 6:10 PM on June 6, 2011 [3 favorites]


I completely relate to Errant's point re: depression. Having a "fog" over you coils into problems and meta-problems. It makes sense that being destitute could do the same thing to you, especially since incidences of mental illness and substance abuse are already elevated in that population to begin with. Many problems that compound other problems. It's sad.

I'm not sure what the policy looks like that would effectively deal with these various interlocking problems, but it would be nice to see one.
posted by Sticherbeast at 6:17 PM on June 6, 2011


I think the "self-control" and "willpower" referred to in the piece can be interpreted not as "I should not buy an X-Box" but as "Even though it's been a long day I should study for my night classes" or "I could probably save a little money and eat better if I sat down and made weekly meal plans" or "I need to investigate welfare health assistance programs to get this condition checked out" or "I better sort through all of these newspapers for coupons." That is, being poor is mentally exhausting, strongly exacerbated by the social and economic structure of our society, and that leaves you less room to make all of these little decisions that could help you.

The decisions about soap and food, for example, are so true. Being able to just go into a store and buy little necessities, things like shampoo or windshield wipers, is a luxury and freedom nobody should take for granted. Shopping without a lot of money is this horrible chore where your brain is non-stop trying to weigh effectiveness of product versus cost per ounce versus trying to guess if it's on sale or not versus calculating if you can go without this product or just make do with something you already have. And you go through this with each item. It's not like "Do I get this yogurt" but "What's the cost per ounce for this yogurt versus other yogurts? OK, look at the tags. Wait, this brand's tag is broken down to cost per quart, and this other yogurt is on sale but the cost per ounce hasn't been calculated. How many ounces are in a quart again? Maybe I should get the plain yogurt and just put fresh fruit in it. OK, how much would I pay for strawberries per serving and now I add that to the yogurt per ounce . . . fuck it I'm skipping the yogurt entirely, I don't really need to eat yogurt anyway." And you do it not because you want to try joining the little couponing or get-rich-slowly type movements, you do it because you have to.

I have to keep my anxiety in check whenever I go shopping with my boyfriend. He makes OK money for a single guy and chooses products based on preference rather than price. So when I see him just buying things I have to restrict the "BUT THIS IS CHEAPER PER OUNCE MAYBE YOU COULD SUBSTITUTE THIS OH GOD YOU'LL DIE HOMELESS IN A DITCH" urge to panic.

It would probably save a good bit of money to spend the additional time and energy to collect whatever umpteen newspapers to search for coupons to make the weekly meal plans and stock up on whatever but goddamn, shopping can already feel like enough of a mental chore without doing that.
posted by schroedinger at 6:19 PM on June 6, 2011 [19 favorites]


As a poor child, I rode my third-hand bike down to the garden store, and I used 50 cents I had found to buy radish seeds. I planted these seeds, and they grew into radishes, and today I am rich, rich!
posted by planet at 6:25 PM on June 6, 2011 [2 favorites]


From the article: Third, money itself can go a long way toward altering the dynamic that leads to willpower depletion among the poor. Government transfers of money have proven successful in Mexico and Brazil, for instance.

Well, yes. It's the basic point that is always denied in discussions about poverty: The simplest, most effective way to eliminate poverty is to give poor people money. Don't be pissy about it, don't tie it up in strings and start talking about food stamps spent at the liquor store, don't start asking why the poor kids are drinking Kool-Aid: Write big checks and get out of the way. Offer some financial counseling courses if you must meddle. But seriously. Write big checks.

You can use every dime I pay in taxes for this. Please, by all means, go ahead.
posted by mittens at 6:25 PM on June 6, 2011 [9 favorites]


I am so fucking grateful I never have to really worry about where my next meal is coming from.
posted by Apropos of Something at 7:30 PM on June 6, 2011


Well, yes. It's the basic point that is always denied in discussions about poverty: The simplest, most effective way to eliminate poverty is to give poor people money. Don't be pissy about it, don't tie it up in strings and start talking about food stamps spent at the liquor store, don't start asking why the poor kids are drinking Kool-Aid: Write big checks and get out of the way. Offer some financial counseling courses if you must meddle. But seriously. Write big checks.

I don't think this is a good solution. Not that people don't love big checks, but most of the time people who don't have money who suddenly get a lot of money without any instruction on how one uses said money in a sustainable way end up with no money.
posted by schroedinger at 7:41 PM on June 6, 2011


Like, for example, when I stocked auto parts there was a guy I knew who refused to use banks because he was convinced they would take his money and he'd never get it back. Handing this guy a giant check and saying "Go to town!" is not in his best interests. "Not poor" isn't only money and resources. It's all of the knowledge--academic, financial, social, behavioral, etc--you're often more likely to learn growing up in a wealthier environment. The intangibles people don't think about, like knowing how to write a resume, knowing how to act during a job interview, knowing about scholarship opportunities and the need to fill out a FAFSA, knowing the farmer's market down the street sells stuff for cheap and just because the food is sitting outside doesn't mean it's low-quality. Knowing when something is a scam and when it's not. Big checks doesn't fix that stuff. This stuff isn't a matter of being stupid, it's lack of experience with things that are more often encountered in a higher economic strata.
posted by schroedinger at 7:49 PM on June 6, 2011 [6 favorites]


It's all of the knowledge--academic, financial, social, behavioral, etc--you're often more likely to learn growing up in a wealthier environment.

What knowledge, exactly, does the middle-class person have about money, that the poor person does not? Is the middle-class less prone to falling for scams? If so, how do we explain the consumer debt, student loan, and housing crises? (Or for that matter every single expensive weight loss plan that comes along?)

Knowing how to act during a job interview is useless when there are no jobs. Knowing about scholarships is useless when they're just the teaser to signing up for life-crushing student loan debt. And, I dunno, the poor folks in my town get that there's a farmer's market. They're there already.

I'd go further than that. These folks around me who are poor--they weren't poor when there were jobs available. They had those jobs. At some point, they interviewed. They had those skills. Probably still do. What's lacking is opportunity, and opportunity isn't going to happen (at least no time soon), so I gravitate toward the big check idea. Which doesn't necessarily mean giant novelty check with 7 figures...maybe it means a guaranteed monthly income that seems like a windfall the first month, but come on, people aren't universally suicidally stupid, they'll pay their bills and not be defrauded of every dime by some charismatic stranger lurking by the gas station pay-phones. If they're missing out on skills, they'll learn them. It's not rocket science.

Of course, the great thing is, I can't be proved wrong, because nobody's going to be writing these life-changing checks! Instead, 20 years from now when we're all fighting over the last rat in the dumpster, I'm sure there will still be some earnest pundit reminding us how It's All Our Own Fault.
posted by mittens at 8:13 PM on June 6, 2011 [2 favorites]


who refused to use banks because he was convinced they would take his money and he'd never get it back.

This does happen sometimes, actually. Not so often lately, but...
posted by ovvl at 8:25 PM on June 6, 2011


I don't understand why this concept is being treated as so controversial. People have a breaking for what they're willing to deal with, if you use up time and energy and fortitude dealing with absolutely everything you get worn down faster. Is the concept of being emotionally and mentally exhausted really that contentious? I see no moral judgement here, it's like saying people who poor nutrition experience less robust physical health, fairly obvious.
posted by karmiolz at 8:30 PM on June 6, 2011 [1 favorite]


These people put the "American Psycho" in American Psychologist.
posted by smithsmith at 8:47 PM on June 6, 2011


What knowledge, exactly, does the middle-class person have about money, that the poor person does not? Is the middle-class less prone to falling for scams? If so, how do we explain the consumer debt, student loan, and housing crises? (Or for that matter every single expensive weight loss plan that comes along?)

Oh for fuck's sake, how does "Growing up in a higher economic strata gives you access to knowledge and opportunities that growing up in a lower economic strata does not" translate to "It's the fault of poor people for being poor"? How did it turn into "Your friends have plenty of opportunities but they're lazy"?

Why can't poverty have multifaceted, complex reasons for existence that depend on society, family, social network, the economy, the quality of schools, and yes, the individual as well as many others? Why does it have to be "THIS REASON AND NO OTHER"? When did I say this was ALL poor people?

It's like you didn't read my post at all in favor of building a strawman so you could write a rant about the economy that nobody was arguing with in the first place.
posted by schroedinger at 8:52 PM on June 6, 2011 [2 favorites]



What knowledge, exactly, does the middle-class person have about money, that the poor person does not? Is the middle-class less prone to falling for scams? If so, how do we explain the consumer debt, student loan, and housing crises? (Or for that matter every single expensive weight loss plan that comes along?)


Sociologists and psychologists call it "social capital." And oftentimes it consists of things like learning nonverbal signals and codes of behavior that act as surreptitious class markers.
posted by liketitanic at 8:54 PM on June 6, 2011 [5 favorites]


1. Poverty makes everyday decision-making more exhausting.
2. People are not as good at making decisions when they are exhausted.
3. These two dynamics together mean that, ceteris paribus and in aggregate, poverty degrades a person's ability to make decisions.

I think the "exhaustible reserve of willpower" is a distracting way to phrase it, but the bones of this theory pass my smell test.
posted by kprincehouse at 9:02 PM on June 6, 2011 [1 favorite]


kprincehouse, you're missing one thing:

4. And this is why more poor people don't escape poverty.

That's right there in the title which is why it seems like the article is blaming poor people for being poor. Yes, it's all very understanding and sympathetic. "Poor people are just so exhausted by poverty that they simply can't make better decisions which would help them become not-poor". This implies that there are opportunities but poor people do not take advantage of them because they don't have the willpower. So there are jobs, and appropriate schooling, and areas of society free from discrimination (and I guess cures for disability, which is a huge cause of poverty)...? I don't think so.

This is also implies that rich people are better at making decisions, and this has some causal link to their being rich. I will not agree with that in a million years. I could be down with this if it was just pointing out another dire consequence of a system which requires poverty in order to function (as capitalism and most economic systems seem to do). What I cannot get with is the idea that this lack of willpower is why people are poor, or why they stay poor.
posted by Danila at 9:49 PM on June 6, 2011 [1 favorite]


This premise seems silly, but using expendable "Will Points" might make for an interesting game mechanic in any upcoming Escape From Poverty RPG (where all the circumstance modifiers are negative).

Strangely enough a bunch of games do have Willpower/Guts/Wits stats that do let you do things like resist mind control.
posted by Lovecraft In Brooklyn at 9:53 PM on June 6, 2011


Danila,

I wholeheartedly disagree with you. I read the article as saying when people are rich they are less burdened by every single decision and are then free to exercise restraint on matters of importance. Whereas when people are poor, even if there are opportunities, they are simply not in a position to consistently make those decisions. Nowhere did I see a lien of reason saying that if you took someone who was poor and gave them the upbringing and resources of the wealthy they would fail due to some inherent flaw, nor that if you took the child of a wealthy family and placed them in the slums they would end up wealthy due to inherent abilities. I find it a jaded view indeed that would read it as such.
posted by karmiolz at 10:05 PM on June 6, 2011 [3 favorites]


This seems pretty tied in with the other recently popular idea of "nudges" that take the immediate volition out of making decisions that require willpower. I'm sure there are a lot of people at my job who would have made the less immediately painful decision of taking all their pay as liquid assets, but because our employer automatically enrolled us all in the 401(k) plan when we started working there, most people just stayed in because it was easy, and as a result we all have some little retirement nest eggs growing. Whether or not to start up a 401(k) was not something I had to ponder at all. The decision happened before I was hired, and while I could stop contributing at any time, ultimately I don't want the hassle. Problem solved, and I get to save my willpower for something else.

Government programs to do the same thing are much harder to start...the accusations of paternalism tend to be pretty overwhelming. I guess if I objected to my company's paternalism I could find another job, and it's a little harder to find another country, but I honestly appreciate being encouraged to do the smart thing and think most people would benefit from nudges in the right direction.
posted by troublesome at 10:59 PM on June 6, 2011 [2 favorites]


Troublesome,

I agree, I think that's the core concept of any social contract.
posted by karmiolz at 11:05 PM on June 6, 2011


Whereas when people are poor, even if there are opportunities, they are simply not in a position to consistently make those decisions.

"Even if there are opportunities" well there aren't so now what? I don't see any other way to read this other than "poor people stay poor because they can't make better decisions". To me, it doesn't matter why their decision-making ability is supposedly depleted. What I object to is the supposed fact that poverty is a result of personal decisions, period. Especially since the article is focused on the so-called "developing world", full of nations that wealthy countries exploited and stepped on in order to better their own position.

These are the kinds of conclusions in that article that I object to:

Poverty may reduce free will, making it even harder for the poor to escape their circumstances.

I turn this into a question. If poor people had more free will, would they be able to escape their circumstances? NO.

willpower-based poverty traps that too frequently seem to end with the poor making unwise decisions

Are most poor people unable to escape poverty because they make unwise decisions? NO.

I understand that the article is sympathetic, but the conclusions are wrong-headed. Free will, self-control, these are not the differences between poor and not-poor on this planet.
posted by Danila at 12:00 AM on June 7, 2011


This is also implies that rich people are better at making decisions, and this has some causal link to their being rich. I will not agree with that in a million years - Danila

Erm. What. I don't think Reality cares very much whether you agree with it or not. Making good decisions is fundamental to, well, everything. Not just economically, but socially, morally, etc. Isn't that the definition of making good decisions, making the choices that lead to better outcomes?

The guys in management absolutely do make better decisions than the guys down in the cubes. That's the whole reason they get promoted, ain't it... to make sound, reasoned decisions, guide company strategy, they make less mistakes, have a talent for not losing sight of the big picture while being focused on the detail.
posted by xdvesper at 12:20 AM on June 7, 2011 [1 favorite]


I read it as free-will and self-control are not luxuries afforded to the poor. Not that they implicitly lack the ability, but that all humans lack the ability in that position. I saw it more of explaining why societies stagnate and lose the possibility of upward mobility, not explaining the larger and often more sinister forces that establish the inequality in the first place.
posted by karmiolz at 12:22 AM on June 7, 2011


xdvesper,

You're actually insinuating that the world is run as a pure meritocracy? Even this article wouldn't go so far, and the relative success of the guys in management isn't exactly inspiring confidence.
posted by karmiolz at 12:26 AM on June 7, 2011


All I'm taking issue with is the flat denial of "some causal link" as if decision making had absolutely nothing to do with some people being rich. Great entrepreneurs absolutely do make great decisions. To deny that is just ridiculous.

I never made the claim that the world is a pure meritocracy: to claim that would be equally ridiculous.

What I'm hearing sounds like people denying that training hard or good genetics make you a better runner, and instead pointing out "systemic factors" like people being born paralyzed or having a broken foot as evidence that there's no causal link between the two.
posted by xdvesper at 12:37 AM on June 7, 2011


By design, access to resources is forcibly denied to most people and that is why they cannot escape poverty. That is my answer to the question posed by this article.

What I'm hearing sounds like people denying that training hard or good genetics make you a better runner, and instead pointing out "systemic factors" like people being born paralyzed or having a broken foot as evidence that there's no causal link between the two.

It's more like some people getting their feet mangled at birth by those who want to hoard all the trophies for themselves. And there are people standing by with hammers just in case the mangled try to help themselves. A few mangled will slip through, but the odds are heavily against the vast majority and it's not because they can't hack it (no pun intended).
posted by Danila at 12:53 AM on June 7, 2011 [2 favorites]


BBc Article - What children think and feel about growing up poor.

"More than 3.5m children live below the poverty line in the UK, which has one of the worst child poverty rates in the industrialised world. Four youngsters explain what it is like growing up when a family has little money."

(Website Plug for a Programme but pretty sad stuff)
posted by marienbad at 3:11 AM on June 7, 2011


There was an article in the NYT a couple of years back about the link between poverty and IQ - growing up with the stresses of poverty lowers kids' IQ. And of course I can't find the article. Anybody know what I'm talking about?
posted by rtha at 3:22 AM on June 7, 2011


All I'm taking issue with is the flat denial of "some causal link" as if decision making had absolutely nothing to do with some people being rich. Great entrepreneurs absolutely do make great decisions. To deny that is just ridiculous.

I think you're moving away from the point of the article, which isn't really discussing individual talent but the pressures on one part of society and how these limit opportunity.

There's no doubt that there are talented people with entrepreneurial flair who build successful businesses, and some of these (not many, I'll wager) start from nothing.

But the article suggests poverty breeds the kind of bad decision making which otherwise might help a person out of poverty. For some, this isn't true, notwithstanding the occasional brilliant entrepreneur. They might make the best decisions ever about their finances, education etc, but all they will achieve is living more comfortably in poverty if they don't have, for example, the resources or confidence to enter higher education, self belief, networking skills, a safety net to deal with the unlucky breaks etc. They can only get so far and no further.
posted by Summer at 4:09 AM on June 7, 2011


....whereas - someone who has all of those things, most importantly a safety net for when those bad decisions are made, is unlikely to fall into poverty no matter what they do.

I've been poorly paid and I've had times of financial hardship, but I've never lived in poverty because I was lucky enough to be born in a middle class area with a good schools to parents who took pride in academic achievement at a time of free, accessible higher education. And I don't have kids. There were always options for me.
posted by Summer at 4:21 AM on June 7, 2011


I think the weakness in this theory is this:

Poverty may reduce free will, making it even harder for the poor to escape their circumstances.

Even if we accept the premise that the poor are more likely to expend their reservoir of free will, I did not see a convincing explanation of why a reduction in free will should have the economic consequences they cite.
posted by superelastic at 4:48 AM on June 7, 2011


[T]he article suggests poverty breeds the kind of bad decision making which otherwise might help a person out of poverty.

Oddly, I was recently struck very strongly by this otherwise perfectly ordinary interview with Paul Merton:
Then he tells a story about standing in a park next to Fulham's football ground with his dad when he was only eight or nine. He looked across the Thames, and asked his father what was on the other side of the river. And his father told him there was nothing there; that he couldn't go over there.

"Then when I got to the age of about 19, I wondered if something was there. And this is going to sound ludicrous, but it's as it was. I thought I'll go and have a look. So I got off the bus, and instead of going over the bridge I went along the other side of the bank. And there was a rowing club, and people rowing; people from Cambridge, and Barclays, and stuff. And I felt so inhibited by them, I couldn't go any further on. I had to go back. These rowers and stuff – this is it, this is the thing – not feeling you fit in. I didn't feel as if I fitted in. Feeling that you shouldn't be there. That somebody's going to tell you off. That you're in the wrong place. And I realised I'd been told something at the age of 10, that you can't go there – that it's not for you. And I just believed it. So when people say: 'Oh what's wrong with the working class? All they've got to do is this and that.' Well no, it's not as easy as that."

He breaks off, looking slightly apologetic. "I'm just trying to talk about this without sounding as if I've got a grudge, cos there is no grudge. I hope this isn't sounding like a terrible sob story, I don't mean it to be at all."
I recognised that, with an almost physical shock, despite the fact that no one is ever going to accuse me of being working class. But all the places where there were options an possiblilities seemed to be alien and inaccessible. I used to go and hang around the areas in London where things seemed to be happening, but they never happened to me. All the things I wanted to do, I couldn't because I didn't have permission.

Anyone who can get round that - who assumes they have permission to do whatever they want or who realises they don't need it - can achieve all sorts of things, but so many people (and not just among the official poor) are living in a virtual cage they don't even realise is there. Actual, obvious oppression that's in your face is, at least something to fight against, but this is too close, too ephemeral, to identify, let alone fight.

(I can't tell, have I gone too far off-topic?)
posted by Grangousier at 5:07 AM on June 7, 2011 [12 favorites]


(I can't tell, have I gone too far off-topic?)

No! This makes far more sense than fantasies about hidden refillable wells of willpower.
posted by mittens at 5:15 AM on June 7, 2011


Grangousier, I remember my friend contemplating university in the 1980s, and even though she had three As at A'level (v rare in those days), higher education seemed to be out of the question because 'it's not for people like me'.
posted by Summer at 5:15 AM on June 7, 2011


The thesis is pretty solid. Poor people make bad judgments, objectively speaking but they are regrettably rationale given the circumstances they often face. Using a payday loan service is most certainly a bad choice if your time horizon is anything longer than seven days, but if you will be evicted in the morning it may be the right choice.

If we are serious about reducing poverty we should look to ways that enable the poor to make better choices. In the short term it takes some financial assistance. My pie in the sky vision would be for the middle class to wake up and realize they share more in common with the poor than the rich and take a pro-active role to share their life skills. I've tried this to some extent and seen some positive results.
posted by dgran at 5:26 AM on June 7, 2011


If Bill Clinton, in his early life, had made all the stupid, idiotic mistakes That GWB did he would never have been president or as well off as he is now. I think, as others have alluded to that the biggest difference between rich and poor, is that the rich can afford to make mistake after mistake and min many cases this does not affect their standard of living significantly.
posted by edgeways at 5:39 AM on June 7, 2011 [2 favorites]


The poor pay more to live on the breadline.
posted by Summer at 5:54 AM on June 7, 2011 [1 favorite]



Interesting article.

More interesting reactions.

It's almost as if words have no fixed meaning and only gain it interpreted through a lens of our personal biases and experiences.

Weird.
posted by j03 at 5:56 AM on June 7, 2011 [1 favorite]


From the article:
In 1998, researchers at Case Western Reserve University published some of the young movement’s first returns. Roy Baumeister, Ellen Bratslavsky, Mark Muraven, and Dianne Tice set up a simple experiment. They had food-deprived subjects sit at a table with two types of food on it: cookies and chocolates; and radishes. Some of the subjects were instructed to eat radishes and resist the sweets, and afterwards all were put to work on unsolvable geometric puzzles. Resisting the sweets, independent of mood, made participants give up more than twice as quickly on the geometric puzzles. Resisting temptation, the researchers found, seemed to have “produced a ‘psychic cost.’”

This is really amazing to me. Just think of all the temptations we are all surrounded by and bombarded by with advertising.

Does watching TV (advertising) for a new car at an unbelievably low interest rate reduce your willpower to do something productive like study for an exam?
posted by j03 at 6:46 AM on June 7, 2011 [1 favorite]


Tangentially, talking about poverty and the inevitable discussions about "bootstrap theory" that ensue always remind me of a short story by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.
posted by jnrussell at 7:49 AM on June 7, 2011


Does watching TV (advertising) for a new car at an unbelievably low interest rate reduce your willpower to do something productive like study for an exam?

Yes.

No! This makes far more sense than fantasies about hidden refillable wells of willpower.

I'm sorry, but this is just silly. There is real science on this topic--this is not fantasy at all. The neurological limits to attention and will power have been a subject of study for some time now, and this idea has been grossly misunderstood/mis-characterized in this thread by folks being knee-jerky and over-protective of... well, something, though I can't tell exactly what.

The point here as I take it isn't that some poor people don't have enough will power and so are to blame for their own circumstances, but that all people have only a finite amount of will power (which has been demonstrated repeatedly in lab settings) and the poor, due to their circumstances, are in a much worse position than the well-off to effectively manage the near-constant assault on our attentions and will-power that characterize modern life. This is not a "just pull yourself up by the bootstraps" kind of idea here; it's a "all human beings have built-in limits and the real-life circumstances of poverty push human beings past those limits, making it in reality far more difficult for them to manage their affairs than those on the outside can imagine" kind of idea.

And it's backed up by a lot of good science. I remember learning about this area of research something like a decade ago when studying Philosophy of Mind as an undergrad. There really are hard biological limits to how much attention we can pay and how much we can suppress urges to give into temptation--this applies across the board, to poor and rich alike. But the rich are both in a much better position, socially, to avoid such pressures and they can afford to give in to them without being financially ruined. It just seems obvious to me that this is another way the poor are structurally disadvantaged compared to the wealthy. Why is that controversial?
posted by saulgoodman at 8:04 AM on June 7, 2011 [8 favorites]


sgm: I don't think most people above were representing the argument of the article as 'that some poor people don't have enough will power and so are to blame for their own circumstances'. I think they're saying, well I was anyway, that in the end, whether the poor are nobbled by this temptation issue or not, they're still fucked, and they're fucked from the start.
posted by Summer at 8:13 AM on June 7, 2011


I think the title of the article and post are both not really indicative of the actual research. It makes perfect sense that people would have a finite amount of willpower, and I remember from both my childhood and college days that being poor requires so *many* more hard decisions than being middle class. I'm still not wealthy, but going to the grocery store when you can afford to buy everything on your list without shirking any of your other bills is so much quicker than apportioning your weekly $10 grocery fund among what you really need to survive without getting lightheaded during the week. (My literal budget used to be $16, but a bit had to be saved for toilet paper, gas, and dog food.) Those trips used to take FOREVER, and require a lot of writing on little scraps of paper. Now, I don't even measure things by the ounce or unit! Grocery shopping takes, like, half an hour!

However, I don't think, by any means, the lack of willpower is at all the *main* reason people remain in poverty. That would be more wide-spread, systemic issues. The willpower is just one more in a whole bundle of reasons why people can't just "make good decisions and stop being poor." It's an example of another privilege rich/middle-class people have that many are unaware of.
posted by wending my way at 8:19 AM on June 7, 2011 [2 favorites]


I think they're saying, well I was anyway, that in the end, whether the poor are nobbled by this temptation issue or not, they're still fucked, and they're fucked from the start.

But the ideas expressed in this article don't contradict the idea that, even when you do everything do a T, the system is pretty much generally stacked against you anyhow.

Look, think about those few people who do pick themselves up by their bootstraps. They tend to be extraordinary cases. They do show that, very technically speaking, some avenues do exist to get out from the underclass. However, the reason why all the poor don't do this all at once, even in addition to all the external factors outside of their control, is that it really does take extraordinary willpower, extraordinary hard-headedness, etc. to cut your way through the various psychological and sociological obstacles that exist.

It's not the fault of the people who can't rise up that they don't - it's just psychological and sociological reality that it's not that easy to say to yourself at age 13, "all right, from now on, I'm going to be an A-student and I'll apply for scholarships so that I can go to state university for free in part time, all the while working during the day to save up," and blah blah blah. It's not that easy to do that when your peer group isn't doing that, when you don't have role models in your social circle who have already done that, it's not that easy to do that when your mind believes that every day has to be a parade of poverty-induced anxiety and distress, and so on.

To claim, even just implicitly, that living in extreme poverty WOULDN'T adversely affect your psyche is pretty damn bizarre. That viewpoint actually objectifies the poor just as much as anything else.
posted by Sticherbeast at 8:32 AM on June 7, 2011 [1 favorite]


I'm sorry, but this is just silly. ... It just seems obvious to me that this is another way the poor are structurally disadvantaged compared to the wealthy. Why is that controversial?

Because focusing on the one symptom distracts from the cause and cure? I mean, if you had two groups of people, and nightly, one of them had all their money taken away at gunpoint, while the other group got to keep theirs, then if you found that the robbed group had lower willpower, your first step wouldn't be, "Let's talk about how best to deal with that loss of willpower, and teach you better critical thinking and life skills so you could save and appropriately invest what pennies the robbers didn't take," right? Your focus would be, let's stop the robbery that is the cause of the willpower problem.

So when I maunder on about hidden fantasy wells of willpower, it's not to deny that there is an enormous amount of stress on the poor...it's to deny that that amount of stress is really relevant to the question of curing poverty, except as another spur. Because otherwise, the options seem to be, "You must now make every decision count because one wrong move ruins you," or, "Here, let this friendly institution take control of your decisions for you."

That second one bothers me a lot. Reading about the controlled bank accounts in the article, I could understand what they're for--it's not that different than the sort of check-bouncing prevention banks offer middle class folks, I guess--but it still puts a lot of faith in the wrong institutions, doesn't it? Is the solution to an exhausted well of willpower really the removal of agency?
posted by mittens at 8:35 AM on June 7, 2011 [3 favorites]


Erm. What. I don't think Reality cares very much whether you agree with it or not. Making good decisions is fundamental to, well, everything. Not just economically, but socially, morally, etc. Isn't that the definition of making good decisions, making the choices that lead to better outcomes?

It's true, there isn't a day that goes by that I recall fondly the day I decided to be born to affluent white parents and raised in a 6 bedroom house in upper-middle class suburbia.
posted by Uther Bentrazor at 8:50 AM on June 7, 2011 [7 favorites]


"it's to deny that that amount of stress is really relevant to the question of curing poverty, except as another spur. Because otherwise, the options seem to be, "You must now make every decision count because one wrong move ruins you," or, "Here, let this friendly institution take control of your decisions for you."

I just don't know that that's a charitable view of what's being claimed. There is no single, simple cause of poverty, save one: the poor have too little money to live off of, let alone to use to better themselves socioeconomically. But the immediate psychological and cultural consequences of living in poverty themselves represent another set of challenges to overcoming poverty. That's worth acknowledging, isn't it?
posted by saulgoodman at 9:29 AM on June 7, 2011 [2 favorites]


I understand what you're saying, mittens. Giving banks more power does not seem appealing. Nor does the general concept of "the removal of agency". But I do not agree with you about "wells of willpower" being "fantasy". As saugoodman pointed out, this seems to be based on solid research and evidence, and if this is a factor, it represents another opportunity to help people, not necessarily a distraction.

Also, part of the argument here is that poor people make poor choices because of how much willpower or self-control or mental resources or whatever you want to call it they are using just to go through daily life, so maybe just throwing money at them isn't the best solution. Perhaps the money is better used to provide poor people with some of the conveniences that only rich people can usually afford: maybe a free laundry service, or meal delivery service.

In Chicago there is a meal delivery non-profit that delivers pre-packaged food cooked by professional restaurant chefs for free to poor neighborhoods (one delivery of 21-84 meals or so per week). Rich people order the same meals and pay a premium for the quality and convenience, which goes to subsidize the free meals for the poor. The goal is to feed the hungry, but I imagine it lightens their cognitive load as well.
posted by AceRock at 6:08 PM on June 7, 2011 [2 favorites]


The paper that the article links to does not say what some commenters seem to think it says. It is not about anything causing poverty. It claims that poverty taxes willpower. The introduction even explicitly says that part of the point of the paper is to show that the correlation between poverty and decision-making does NOT imply that bad decisions cause poverty.

Finite willpower is very well established. The paper just checked to see if it applies in the context of poverty. Hey look, it does. Big surprise.

If your upset was because you were reacting to the pop-sci writeup instead of the actual paper, it's time to realize that they're just never any good; don't bother with them.
posted by Jpfed at 10:23 PM on June 7, 2011 [1 favorite]


Interesting. I've also seen this at work in the lives of other people who are in no means poor, but still manage their money as if they were.

For example, I have a friend who makes about $70k per year and is very, very frugal. She does a thorough cost-benefit tradeoffs analysis of every purchase, even for stuff under $1. Now her finances are in great shape but she comes unglued and paralyzed with anxiety when she has to make decisions about any other part of her life. It is indeed like she used up all her decision-making energy / willpower reserves making hundreds of tiny decisions at the grocery store and has nothing left over to manage the rest of her life.

She is so neurotic about spending money -- even when it will undoubtedly make her happier -- that I've concluded that she is one of those rare individuals for whom receiving a store gift card will increase her utility more than receiving cash, because the gift card forces her to spend money on something she enjoys for a change instead of agonizing about the decision for hours or weeks and then deciding to deny herself and sock the money into savings instead. (I'm sure that she'll still find a way to spend hours strategizing how to maximize the value of the gift card by combining it with coupons and sales, but at least in the end she's buying the fucking craft supplies that will make her happy.)
posted by Jacqueline at 9:16 AM on June 8, 2011


That's worth acknowledging, isn't it?

You know, it took me a couple of days to think about this--and participating in the SSRI thread, which in a sense is also about depleting wells of (patient) willpower (especially in the face of conflicting information and not-always-helpful physicians)--but yes, I think I see the point. The sense of "Do I really have to think of every single thing myself," with utter ruin before you, has to lead to some exhaustion, digging yourself further into the hole.

I still think redistribution is the best answer...but I suppose there's no reason to make people live in utter misery until that event...which, frankly, has more fantasy in it than the idea of finitie will.
posted by mittens at 5:14 AM on June 9, 2011


The guys in management absolutely do make better decisions than the guys down in the cubes. That's the whole reason they get promoted, ain't it... to make sound, reasoned decisions, guide company strategy, they make less mistakes, have a talent for not losing sight of the big picture while being focused on the detail.

Absolutely hysterical. I may only be 35 years old but I cannot think of a single business I have worked at where this has ever been the case. Is it just that I've been incredibly unlucky with where I have worked because by Christ this is comedy gold in my experience. A horde of machinegun-toting syphilitic monkeys riding on the backs of rocket propelled antelopes would cause less damage than the imbeciles above me. I spend more time fixing their fuckups than actually doing my job!
posted by longbaugh at 7:16 AM on June 9, 2011 [4 favorites]


The guys in management absolutely do make better decisions than the guys down in the cubes. That's the whole reason they get promoted, ain't it... to make sound, reasoned decisions, guide company strategy, they make less mistakes, have a talent for not losing sight of the big picture while being focused on the detail.

Absolutely hysterical. I may only be 35 years old but I cannot think of a single business I have worked at where this has ever been the case. Is it just that I've been incredibly unlucky with where I have worked because by Christ this is comedy gold in my experience. A horde of machinegun-toting syphilitic monkeys riding on the backs of rocket propelled antelopes would cause less damage than the imbeciles above me. I spend more time fixing their fuckups than actually doing my job!


I can't remember where I read this theory, but the "Corner Office Theory" stated that the high-paid executives were not paid ginormous sums of money because they generated that much value for the company. As Longbaugh points out, far from it.

The high-paid corner-office class' function was not to generate value by their performance personally, but to serve as the brass ring the lower-grade grunts were striving for.

The impetus for all the worker ants to put in those insane, family- and soul-killing hours is the idea that "someday I can make it to the corner office. I walk past it every day, I see what that life is like. It shines before me, like some beautiful lamp on prominent display by management for all of us to see.

"Yeah, they're morons who don't do real work. But they're morons farting through silk with big houses whose kids go to private school.

"Back to the grindstone..."
posted by Pirate-Bartender-Zombie-Monkey at 10:07 AM on June 11, 2011 [1 favorite]


To answer the question upthread about what being middle-class gets you that being poor doesn't, learning-wise:

1/ I grew up in a household that had a culture of work, which covers everything from "Dad gets up in the morning and goes to his job" through to my mother explaining her tricks and tips from the many interviews for part-time jobs she'd done over the years.

2/ A bit old-fashioned, these days, but I also grew up in a household that borrowed for mortgages, and not anything else. Save, put it on lay-by, or do without.

3/ When I was interested in role-playing, I got games. Which meant by 10-11 I had a pretty decent working grasp of basic probability maths. Enough to calculate lotto odds and understand why the house always comes out ahead, anyway. And young enough to believe in it the way some people believe in deities.

4/ My rather good (in a rather wanting-to-be-an-English-public-school kind of way) high school gave me a set of English, Business Studies, and Social Studies courses that meant by fourth form (grade 9 in the US, I think), I'd absorbed a decent chunk of the theory of money, depreciation, months of criticial thinking around advertising, double-entry bookkeeping, and how to read the basics of a public company annual report. I know plenty of people who have much better formal education than me, but whose high schools would never have thought to cover most of those until Fifth form and above, when subjects like Business Studies and Social Studies become split into specialised electives (Accounting, Economics, History, Geography, and so on).

(High schools in New Zealand were, when I attended, zoned, which meant that they must take anyone from the right geographical area. "Good" zones have some obvious effects on house prices.)

5/ Finally, I grew up around a lot of people who thought reading was a good passtime, that getting an education and dinking with computers and so on, while not particularly trendy, were worthwhile things to do.

Those are some random examples off the top of my head. I imagine there are others if I think harder about them, but, yes, home examples and formal education can make a bloody huge difference.
posted by rodgerd at 4:35 AM on June 13, 2011 [2 favorites]


I'm late to the conversation as usual. But when I read Pesticides Ties to Lower IQ in Children, I thought of this thread. "Each IQ-point drop will add up to extra costs in lost earnings over an individual’s lifetime ... and even, potentially, to higher education and other costs..."
posted by loosemouth at 9:44 AM on June 15, 2011


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