How poverty stupefies

Safety-net programs are needlessly complicated

January 8, 2014 1:45PM ET
Raphael Richmond examines the limited food options available at a church food bank giveaway in Washington, DC on Dec. 8, 2013.
Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post/Getty Images

The U.S. government spends more than $400 billion a year on a massive safety net meant to keep Americans out of poverty. Although maintaining this social insurance is essential, the needlessly ad hoc and complicated way it “helps” those in need could be making it harder in some respects for them to improve their lives.

This is not to say that the War on Poverty, which President Lyndon Johnson launched on Jan. 8, 1964, in his State of the Union address to Congress, has entirely failed. The poverty rate is about 15 percent now, down from about 19 percent then. All told, safety-net programs kept 25 million people out of poverty in 2010, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

At the same time, old problems and new challenges take their toll. The minimum wage is $7.25, down from the equivalent (in 2013 dollars) of $10.77 in 1968. In the wake of the Great Recession, more than 4 million people have been jobless for 27 weeks or more, twice as many as 10 years ago. There are vast and widening income and asset gaps between rich and poor, and Horatio Alger rags-to-riches myths aside, one study has found that upward mobility is easier to achieve in Canada, Australia or Scandinavia than it is in the United States.

For all the good our programs have done, I have always found it hard to imagine anyone planning a life if she were relying on such programs, constantly worried about having enough food or money or a place to live. Waking up before dawn to line up at a food bank, only to find you’re too late for anything but onions, potatoes and hot-dog buns, is a consuming challenge. You are not going to be thinking about how to get the skills you need for your dream job, or any job, let alone socking away money to make it happen. That’s especially true in this dragging economy, where there are still nearly three unemployed people for every available job. It will be even truer if Congress does not renew emergency long-term unemployment insurance, a failure that will create more hardships such as people losing their homes.

Worries about not having enough money can subtract 13 IQ points from your mental capacity.

Now there is research documenting the impact of poverty on decision making and planning. In “Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much,” economist Sendhil Mullainathan of Harvard and psychologist Eldar Shafir of Princeton show that simply feeling poor makes it very hard to think clearly. Their studies  found the same dramatic results whether the subjects were Indian sugarcane farmers or shoppers at a New Jersey mall. Feeling rich (the farmers who were studied after their harvests, for instance) resulted in good performance on intelligence tests. Feeling poor produced much worse results.

Worries about not having enough money, it turns out, can subtract 13 IQ points from your mental capacity or “bandwidth,” as the authors call it. That's a more profound effect than losing a full night's sleep. All the mall shoppers did well on the intelligence tests after trying to decide whether to make a $150 car repair, but those classified as poor fell apart when the expense was put at $1,500.

“A small tickle of scarcity and all of a sudden they looked significantly less intelligent. Preoccupied by scarcity, they had lower fluid intelligence scores,” Mullainathan and Shafir write about the shoppers. “The poor responded just like the rich when the car cost little to fix, when scarcity had not been rendered salient. Clearly, this is not about inherent cognitive capacity.”

Those findings — related to what some call decision fatigue, or the weakened ability to make choices when faced with too many options and tradeoffs — go a long way toward explaining impulsive behavior and unwise decisions by people in a constant state of anxiety over money, food, jobs, their kids, their cars, their health and everything else in their lives. They could also help dispel negative stereotypes of the poor — after a bad night’s sleep, who hasn’t felt overwhelmed and befuddled by the demands of challenging tasks the next day? But most important, while the research confirms that scarcity perpetuates scarcity, it also shows this problem is not set in concrete but is relatively “open to remedies.”

Starting from the premise that programs for people in need should use as little mental bandwidth as possible, the potential for policy remedies is clear. For instance, many people are eligible for multiple programs. So one-stop shopping for benefits would be a stress reliever, eliminating hours or even days spent on public transportation and in waiting rooms, and time away from jobs. A one-stop shop with early and late hours would also ease the stress of worrying about getting fired. And it could alert people to help they might not know about, such as legal aid, student aid or tax-filing assistance. One group, Single Stop, operates 90 centers in seven states. A national network would be enormously helpful.

Another straightforward stress reliever is an idea that bipartisan groups of lawmakers have been proposing repeatedly for the past decade: lifetime savings accounts for every baby born in the United States. The federal government would deposit $500 in each account (more for poor children) and invest it in a range of options under the guidance of parents and guardians. The account would be untouchable until the holders turned 18. Then the money could be used for education, a home or a retirement nest egg. The accounts have been supported across the political spectrum, from Democrats like Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and former representative Patrick Kennedy to Republicans like former senators Rick Santorum and Jim DeMint. They are seen as a way to close the yawning asset gap. They could also be a powerful tool in motivating low-income children to envision futures for themselves, and to take the steps needed to turn their dreams into reality. A similar purpose would be served by guaranteeing a basic income for all.

To be sure, there will be constant tweaks in how the government helps people in need to both survive and succeed. As policymakers discuss and enact changes, they should always be asking themselves if what they are doing is as simple as it could be, as flexible as it could be, as efficient and stress-free as it could be. Those yardsticks could make all the difference in many complicated, tenuous lives.

Jill Lawrence, the author of the Brookings Institution’s Profiles in Negotiation series, is a U.S. News & World Report contributing editor and a member of USA Today’s board of contributors.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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