Given what I have learned in the past few years about Behavioral Economics I’ve been thinking something along these lines lately too. I don’t recall it ever being overtly mentioned but I think it was definitely something I picked up reading Daniel Kahneman, Cass Sunstein, Richard Thaler, and Dan Ariely (and Michael Lewis’s book The Undoing Project: A Friendship That Changed Our Minds, a book about the working relationship between Kahneman and his research partner Amos Tversky).

Yeah yeah yeah I know I have heard it before. If these people would just get up off their butt..but it just not true. Sure there are the slackers. They are there in every demographic group but there is something else going on in the poverty condition.

Whether we’re doctors, or teachers, or anything else, we all have a finite amount of mental bandwidth, and if we use that space to concentrate one thing, it can’t be used for something else. Sounds obvious, but emerging research show that it has profound implications, especially for people who are financially barely scraping by. While everyone juggles work, family, and financial obligations, for low-income families these decisions involve constant, agonizing tradeoffs(“Should I pay the rent or the heating bill? Should I fill this prescription or buy food?”). And the process of making those painful, fraught tradeoffs day after day comes at a cognitive cost—the equivalent, researchers say, of living each day as if you hadn’t slept the night before.

Living in poverty, having so much bandwidth wrapped up just making it from one day to the next, decreases a person’s—any person’s—cognitive function, making it harder to solve problems, resist impulses, and think long-term. If a well-off professional were transplanted into a life of poverty tomorrow, he’d lose the same bandwidth too—and his brain function would show it.


“So we can stop lecturing low-income families about bootstraps or ‘not trying hard enough,’ or suggesting that people are poor because they somehow deserve it, and we can pivot the conversation toward something that’s actionable,” Barrows says. “There’s stuff we can do about this.”

Behavioral economics has a plan to fight poverty-and it’s all about redesigning the “cockpit”

Dr. Bryan Bledsoe was just trying to keep up. The ER at the small rural hospital was always packed and the top brass had urged him to move patients through more quickly, so when a woman in her sixties came in complaining of head and neck pain, he briskly examined her, hustled her off for…

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