Last night the Wellesley Institute and United Way Toronto were thrilled to host Professor Eldar Shafir from Princeton University for an extensive talk on the ideas in his new book Scarcity: Why having too little means so much.
What is interesting about the premise of Shafir’s scarcity idea is that it shows that people experiencing scarcity make choices based on urgency and often use much more of their attention, or bandwidth, to focus on the task at hand, whether it be paying bills, catching up on loans, looking for affordable housing, or other issues that are more difficult because of financial scarcity. Scarcity makes anyone make bad decisions – people in poverty sometimes make bad decisions because their bandwidth is so diminished just by their struggle to survive, just like busy people sometimes mismanage their time. And, anyone can experience scarcity, he says, and anyone experiencing scarcity would make similar choices. This is a profound frame shift, taking the onus off the individual and placing it duly on systems.
Many anti-poverty initiatives include skill-building programs, education, and financial literacy but the idea of a bandwidth tax suggests that our attention and focus and ability to learn are compromised in times of scarcity. So the bigger question is: do our assumptions start from the wrong premise? This is obviously a complex problem with a complex solution. But the discussions in Shafir’s book illuminate a new frame from which to start.
This talk came at the perfect time to remind us why poverty reduction is so important. Ontario is preparing to reveal its new five-year poverty reduction strategy, after meeting and consulting with many groups and organizations across the province. The minister responsible for the Poverty Reduction Strategy, Hon. Teresa Piruzza, opened the evening.
To see the fuller set of ideas presented by Eldar Shafir, watch an earlier talk from 2011 below.