A Different Look at Poverty


Making good choices is an important skill. It’s not impossible to learn, it takes discipline, flexibility, creativity and curiosity. Given time and resources, almost any challenge can be met, and in fact one of the reasons bad choices are made is that there’s too little time or resources available.

I read an interesting article about why people in poverty make poor financial choices repeatedly, and the answer isn’t what we think it is: lack of basic intelligence and/or discipline. The theory is about lack of Bandwidth, that given the right kind of pressure, we don’t have enough brain power to use as normal. The story is in my post last Friday Escaping the Cycle of Scarcity: it observes that lack of money in a crisis puts someone in a tunnel that decreases their ability to think rationally, worse than if they’d been up all night. Long range consequences of behavior go off the radar, because you need the money now, so you make the Payday Loan, or choose to pay the rent because it’s due now rather than the car payment, because unless you can take of today, there is no perceived tomorrow. The study also indicated that middle class people put in a similar crisis responded to crises as poor people did, and people in a different culture (India) also responded in a similar way to similar circumstances.

There are comparison in literature that illustrates this very well from Les Misérables. When we meet her in the story of the musical, Fantine is already in the Tunnel: she has urgent demands on her tiny resources from the Thénerdiers, who are taking care of her daughter Cosette, and each demand has to be met immediately. Fantine doesn’t have time and space think through the best way to get ahead long term, tries one stopgap after another, selling her hair and her teeth, even selling her body, because she needs money now. Her lack of bandwidth keeps her from thinking about whether the Thénardiers might be cheating her (they are), or whether she should look in on her child more often. On the contrary, her employer, Jean Valjean, who worked his way from poverty to be the owner of a factory and mayor of the town, had no such crises while he was accumulating capital and so was able to invest his money and resources wisely.

Was he always like that? He once stole a loaf of bread because his sister’s family was starving: his crime got him imprisoned originally. The good fortune he had after the Bishop delivered him from poverty was his health didn’t break down and no one needed his support: there were no crises that put him in the Tunnel. The space for reflection helped solidify his sense of virtue and he was able to take enormous calculated risks, respond to crises that arose from Javert’s pursuit, because he had the space to use his full capacities and remake himself. Fantine never got that chance, thanks to the Thénerdiers and other people around here, including Valjean for a time.

We need to rethink how we view people who can’t get out of Poverty. It may not be only a lack of intelligence or self-discipline that keeps people there, and let’s not get into which businesses and other interests (the Thénardiers of today) work to keep people in the Tunnel of crisis. Hopefully, the day will come soon that our society has the will to work together on poverty for our own common good, and we’ll be able to take into account the Tunnel. Keeping people out of the Tunnel in the first place may be the most important thing.


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