In the last few weeks in the UK there has been a surge in high profile figures – from TV chef’s to government ministers – blaming ‘poor people’ for their poverty. In this guest post, Joe Penny from the new economics foundation summarises recent research from behavioural psychologists on how poverty itself makes it harder to make good decisions (building on Rob’s post earlier this week that went into one part of this research in more detail), and explains why this matters for welfare policy and reform.
First there was Jaime Oliver, claiming that he couldn’t quite grasp poverty in the UK, where people made choices between massive TVs and nutritious food. Then, more recently, Michael Gove suggested that the rise in people accessing food banks was a result of poor financial management, rather than genuine need due to falling living standards and benefit sanctions.
Oliver and Gove are, of course, not alone in thinking or expressing these views. Narratives of welfare dependency have become more common place and increasingly assertive under the coalition government; the the so-called Skivers and Strivers dichotomy is a well-known case in point. Poverty, according to this perspective, is caused by a culture of deviance, idleness, and dependency. The poor are responsible for their own plight. They cannot be trusted to make the right choices for themselves – or society more generally – and so are in need of paternalistic guidance (hence the current raft of welfare reforms).
But recent research suggests that this ignores the way in which poverty changes all of our decision-making – as I explain in this post.
The evidence on bad decisions
To suggest, or even allude to the idea, that poverty is simply about the choices we make is to completely ignore broader trends – in employment (quantity and quality), wages, the cost of living and living standards – that are all quite beyond the control of individuals. It is also to ignore the role that this government’s welfare reforms are playing in hitting the poorest hardest.
Of course, this is not to say that choices are irrelevant. We are not simply passive victims of economic forces and government policy – even if they do shape our room for manoeuvre, and constrain some far more than others. People can still make some choices. Yet, Gove and co don’t just place too much emphasis on individual autonomy and the times when poor people make ‘bad’ choices, they also imply that poor decision making is itself an innate feature of poor people. This confuses cause and effect.
Recent research from Harvard, Princeton and Warwick Universities has been taking a close look at what they call the “psychology of poverty”. Using tried and tested methods (see here for a good review of some of the tests) psychologists argue that our cognitive resources are finite. There is only a certain amount of things we can focus on at any one given time in our lives. There are also limits to our self-control. So far, so obvious. However, they continue to demonstrate how living in a state of poverty reduces these resources, impairing our functionings and affecting our ability to make effective decisions and, in the long term, flourish. Poverty, they argue, means having to make a great many more complex and mentally taxing choices. This fills up our “cognitive bandwidth” and means there is less space for self-control, attention, problem solving and everyday life skills:
“When your bandwidth is loaded, in the case of the poor… you’re just more likely to not notice things, you’re more likely to not resist things you ought to resist, you’re more likely to forget things, you’re going to have less patience, less attention to devote to your children when they come back from school.” (full article here)
These findings are significant. They show that the decisions we make when in a state of scarcity and precariousness are often different, and less efficacious, from those we make when in a state of plenty and security.
From psychology to policy
This sort of research should be shaping our approach to welfare reform for at least two, connected, reasons. First, it robustly undermines claims that poverty is the result of poor decision making, showing instead how living in a state of scarcity, “experienced as a result of economic instability and poverty”, reduces our finite cognitive resources which in turn affects the decisions we make. Secondly, based on this finding, it suggests a complete rethinking of how we reform welfare – moving us away from the “race-to-the-bottom” welfarism we have now, towards a model of actual social security and genuine support.
Rather than making support for people more punitive, conditional and insecure – as nef’s research has documented – the government should be designing support that stabilises people in their lives. This means rethinking sanctions, narrow work capability assessments and levels of financial support. It also means working with people to shape support that meets their needs and wants, and builds social and emotional capabilities. In this way people will, in time, be much better placed to develop their functionings and capabilities, which will also make them more likely to do what the government state they want them to – find and stay in paid employment.