Scarcely getting by

What we're reading blog post tag imageFront-line community workers will not be surprised to learn that research in Canada and Australia shows that people with low incomes and other marginalized groups are more likely to have intersecting legal problems on many fronts at the same time. This can make it harder for them to access public legal education and information (PLE).

However, a recent article gives another possible reason for this – the notion that scarcity, or having to manage with less than one needs, literally “taxes the mind”.

In one study, for example, behavioural economists Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir asked participants to think about two scenarios where they had to make a decision about whether to repair their car based on two different repair costs: $300 and $3000. They administered tests to measure the participants’ cognitive skills in dealing with each scenario.

The group of people in the study who self-identified as “poor” had their cognitive skills test scores drop by an equivalent of 14 IQ points when the price in the scenario was raised to $3000. In contrast, those who self-identified as “rich” showed no significant difference in their test scores. This led Mullainathan and Shafir to conclude that “raising monetary concerns for the poor… erodes cognitive performance even more than being seriously sleep-deprived”.

This makes sense, according to them, given the “maelstrom of problems” people with low incomes must deal with and the “mental juggling” that results from trying to decide how to allocate scarce resources: do they pay the rent, feed the kids, or repair the car they need to get them to work? This leaves little “mental bandwidth” available for anything else.

Given that most common legal problems affecting people with low incomes are either created or exacerbated by lack of money, this article resonated with us – and reminded us of the importance of keeping PLE as easy to understand and use as possible.

**It’s been brought to our attention that the website on which we found the article discussed above is down for the time being. For more information about the work of Mullainathan and Shafir, see this review of their book on the science of scarcity.**

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