“As it turns out, living in poor neighborhoods isn’t just an inconvenience. It’s a huge factor in what our lives — and our children’s lives — turn out to be.
Research shows it’s like breathing in bad air; the more you’re exposed to it, the more it hurts you. And it isn’t just because of the lack of opportunity. It’s that living in these distressed areas changes your brain — and your kids’ brains.”
Thanks to a review, which I posted an excerpt from here in May, I discovered an interesting little book called Scarcity. I subsequently checked it out from the library (♡ NYPL) and gave it a read through. I find the author’s concept of “scarcity” to be a useful lens to view the effect of mindset and subjective perception on behavior.
The authors broaden the concept of “scarcity” beyond that of a physical shortage to that of a psychological construct, and they introduce some terms to help explain this: scarcity trap, bandwidth, and tunneling.
Life in the Scarcity Trap
Life in the scarcity trap is about having even less than you could have. It is about playing catch-up, dealing with each ball just before it lands and the messy patchwork that emerges as a result.
When we’re living in a scarcity trap, whether financial or mental, we’re juggling too many things, entangled in the overwhelming urgency of now. And somehow just when we’ve seemed to achieve some semblance of stability, yet another ball inevitably gets dropped in on us. A bill comes up, an emergency room visit needs to be made, a family member passes away.
In schools, educators watch students get caught in these kinds of traps in an endless loop, defined by marking periods. Many are continually one step behind, always scrambling to get “caught up” at the last minute before report cards are due and causing their teachers consternation.
After failing for too long, some students give up trying altogether. Somehow, they continue to get passed on to the next grade anyway.
Poverty Taxes Bandwidth
Anyone who has been taxed with too many tasks and deadlines knows what it means to have limited bandwidth. Teachers especially know this well—during the school year, we’re so overwhelmed we have to schedule in time to speak to our spouses.
In one of the many catch-22s of poverty, those most in need of more bandwidth never seem to have enough.
In the moment, faced with a particularly appealing project or purchase, we often can’t resist saying yes. Following through on a plan requires bandwidth and cognitive control, and scarcity leaves us with less of both.
Nearly every advanced cognitive function relies on bandwidth. . . . So if you want to understand the poor, imagine yourself with your mind elsewhere. You did not sleep much the night before. You find it hard to think clearly. Self-control feels like a challenge. You are distracted and easily perturbed. And this happens every day. On top of the other material challenges poverty brings, it also brings a mental one. [Bold added]
This is a mental state we all can relate with, whether or not we are poor. The book provides examples of studies that place subjects into a momentary state of scarcity, irregardless of their actual socio-economic standing, and they find that subjects act in the same manner.
And this is, for me, the greatest insight that this book provides. The mindset of scarcity is something anybody can relate to. This is critical. Mullainathan and Shafir make it clear that any of us would make similar decisions if we were in a state of poverty.
In a great variety of circumstances, poverty appears to correlate with failure. . .
The failures of the poor are part and parcel of the misfortune of being poor in the first place. Under these conditions, we all would have (and have) failed.
. . . myopia is not a personal failure. Tunneling is not a personal trait. . . . it is the context of scarcity that makes us all act that way.
Tunnels limit everyone’s vision. [Bold added]
When we tunnel, we effectively delimit our sphere of thought to what lies immediately before us. As the authors point out, this can be a positive thing in certain instances, such as while working under a deadline. But for many living in poverty, tunneling can become a devastating handicap. When your decision-making is defined primarily by what you want or need each moment, you tend to neglect the future. You may, for example, take out loans for quick cash that places you further into debt. And the scarcity trap thus perpetuates.
Authors Mullainathan and Shafir also point to the influence of context and environment on perception and mindset. When we perceive ourselves to be in a position of scarcity, we evaluate and make judgments that are different than when we are flush with options.
Perceived color, much like perceived distance, depends on surrounding cues. And as it turns out, so does perceived value.
Any teacher who has taught a student experiencing divorce, domestic violence, a death in the family, or any other trauma, knows intimately the burden that student is operating under. You can see the struggle visibly in the student’s work and scores.
According to Scarcity‘s authors, poverty itself has a similarly significant impact on behavior and cognitive functioning. Unsurprisingly, this is something teachers have been pointing out since public education’s inception. Poverty affects performance because it affects the mind. This impact is irregardless of nutrition and health—but it goes without saying that lead paint, noise pollution, and gasoline fumes don’t aid the situation.
So What Can We Do?
It is not merely that the shocks hurt us but that they put us in a position for the psychology of scarcity to kick in. We begin to tunnel and to borrow, and soon we are one step behind and perpetually playing catch-up. Yet despite this, it is striking how often we fail to build a buffer stock. While direct research on this question is scant, there are some good hints. For one, the data suggest that we tend to underappreciate the likelihood of many low-probability events. That’s why we underinsure for floods and earthquakes. When everything is going smoothly, we can, of course, imagine dark clouds, but we undervalue their possibility and thus do not prepare properly. . . . What could interfere with your plans are not just floods or earthquakes, but you may get sick, or a family member could get sick, or there could be a break in, or a car theft, or a war, or the loss of a job, or a surprise wedding, or an unexpected birth. All of these, of course, are possible but highly unlikely. But the problem is that any one of these is enough to count as a shock, for which you should have built some buffer stock. And that buffer stock needs to be built during times of abundance. [Bold added]
The author’s suggestions for how to tackle scarcity mindsets unsurprisingly has a lot to do with design. I say unsurprisingly, because if we know that context has a big influence on perception and behavior, then we’ll take steps to design tools and environments for success.
When we encounter programs that have had limited success, we may be tempted to infer that they deliver something people do not want or do not consider important. But perhaps the problem is not in what these programs are trying to deliver but with the actual delivery. Like the bomber cockpits of World War II, these programs might achieve greater success through better design.
So what are some principles of design that we can use to assist those who are tunneling, dealing with limited bandwidth, and caught in a scarcity trap?
1) Automate Opt-Ins
Savings can be a foreign concept when you’re living paycheck to paycheck. But when those checks do come in, there can be brief periods of abundance. Unfortunately, due to the mindset of scarcity, periods of abundance all too swiftly subside back into scarcity, and once again, we are caught in the trap—oftentimes even further in debt.
When I get my paycheck, I have it set up so that 10% of the check is automatically deducted to be put towards my retirement. If I had to do this manually each pay period, the odds that I would do so are pretty slim. I can always use that extra cash. But because the deduction is automatic, I don’t have to think about it. Someday, that surplus will be essential for me and my family.
The authors suggest that automating deductions in this way is critical to assisting those in scarcity in creating savings. Opting-out should require deliberation, rather than opting-in.
There would be no new sacrifices now; only later, in that fuzzy future. The results [of programs using this method] have been stunning. In one firm, more than 75 percent of those offered the plan chose it over trying to save on their own, and only a minority ever opted back out.
Note that this isn’t simply a financial problem—it’s also a cognitive one. Educators know this well when we try—and all too often, fail—to connect a student’s behavior and decisions to future goals. How are you going to get into a good [middle school, high school, college, career] if you don’t do [x, y, or z]? The future is abstract for many children, let alone adults.
In schools, we can design for this principle in our systems of behavior management. I visited a middle school in Brooklyn, MS 442 Carroll Gardens School for Innovation, that has a strong program of PBIS (Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports). Each student begins the year with a set level of “points.” A disciplinary referral deducts points. In other words, all children are automatically opted in to the system—students are responsible for any loss in points. Points can only be “made up” by approaching the individual teacher and working out how to rectify the infraction with them—in other words, a student can’t go to their favorite “nice” teacher and acquire extra points. They have to negotiate with the teacher who got them into trouble in the first place.
Set levels of points are required to participate in school activities that are motivating to the students, such as to attend field trips, prom, or to walk down the aisle at graduation. Now think about the kind of conversation you can have with a student:
You’re now at [X] points because you didn’t take off your cap in class. In 3 months, if you are still at this point level, you won’t be able to go to prom. What would have been a better decision to have made? How can you make a different decision next time?
That’s powerful, because you’re able to make an abstract future goal concrete and tangible for a student. And that leads us to our next related principle of design.
2) Make Better Choices More Immediately Accessible
In a world of tunneling and neglect, a lot depends on timing. Some of our biggest mistakes happen when deciding for the future, when things far removed from any tunnel look distant and fuzzy.
One insight of the psychology of scarcity is the need to prepare for tunneling and to insulate against neglect: navigate so that bad choices are harder to make in a single moment of tunneling, and arrange it so that good behaviors require little vigilance yet are occasionally reevaluated.
This principle is so similar to our last one that it’s questionable whether I should have distinguished them, but I think it’s worth juxtaposing just to look at it from a fresh angle.
If you want to lose weight, and you have chocolate cake sitting on your counter and soda in your fridge, guess what? You’re going to have a hard time losing weight. But if you have fruits, juice, and healthier snacks immediately accessible, and less healthy snacks tucked away (or not available at all), making poor dietary choices becomes more difficult. When it requires more effort to make a poor decision, you are less likely to make that decision.
Similarly, in a school, we want to make success more readily achievable, not more difficult. That doesn’t mean making tasks and assignments “easier”—it means providing a structure or environment where better choices are more immediately accessible. For example, how many teachers have you heard complain because when a deadline for an essay comes around, a lot students haven’t done a thing? But I kept telling them, the essay is due Monday! We can help our students with bigger projects by breaking up the tasks into deadlines that lead up to the final product.
In graduate school at City College while I was a NYC Teaching Fellow, I had a professor who structured our thesis paper into mini-deadlines for each component. The first deadline was generating the problem statement, the next was the literature review, and so on. She knew that we were in over our heads, overwhelmed with urgent daily demands of teaching, and that we needed help with structuring our time. If she had just set one big deadline at the end of the term, she knew—from experience—that many papers would not be ready, and quality would suffer. By setting deadlines throughout the term, she helped us conduct our research and complete our paper.
There’s a tension here that I want to acknowledge, given that the concept of “designing” environments and choice architecture can be viewed as paternalistic or manipulative. We want to design positive environments where better choices can readily be made, while at the same time building greater autonomy and independence over time. Achieving the proper developmental balance certainly will not be easy. But I think it is clear that either leaving people living in poverty, or kids in a school, to go it alone is not an option, any more than providing extensive support with no expectations of improvement is an option.
I’ll leave it there, as I’m trying to get ready for a trip to Ireland and Scotland, wherein I will do my very best to avoid thinking any more about education, news, or otherwise keeping current whatsoever, and will instead attempt to enjoy the here and now of my temporal existence, a good Scotch, conversation, green hills, and a wee bit of literature, so that I can come back to my school afresh. Would love to hear your thinking about Scarcity or Schemas or QBism in the meantime. Over and out.
Mullainathan, Sendhil, and Eldar Sharif. Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means so Much. London: Allen Lane, 2013. Print.
I have an article in Jacobin this week about the impact of jargon on our understanding of public education. One of the key points Mark and I have made in this blog since the very beginning is that schools are physical environments. When we use jargon, or any language that is unnecessarily technical or unclear, to discuss schools, we make that physical environment seem like an abstraction. As I argue in the article:
“Beyond confusing and misleading the public, jargon obscures the fact that when we talk about schools, we’re talking about places where children live and grow for seven to nine hours a day, ten months out of the year. If they’re poor, these children spend their days in overcrowded classrooms that are poorly lit and poorly ventilated.
My first two years teaching in the public schools, I worked at a high school where students spent their entire school day, five days a week, without ever leaving the building. These teenagers received a single thirty-minute break each day for lunch and recess combined. Their recess consisted of milling about the school cafeteria after eating. Jargon reduces these pent-up children to abstractions and effaces the brutality of this type of captivity.”
The more direct and clear our language is, the less it will obscure the physical reality of school environments.
There is a myth in this country that poverty and race are overwhelming barriers to a child’s ability to learn. This is simply not the case.
On some level, Moskowitz is correct: poverty does not interfere with student learning. To get to that level, we have to dissociate the word “poverty” from both its literal definition and its commonly accepted meaning: the condition of having little or no wealth and the resulting lack of access to human necessities like nutritious food, shelter, clothing, books, and other things that make life comfortable and stimulating.
Once we strip the word poverty of its meaning, it becomes three meaningless syllables. At that point, Moscowitz is 100% right: those syllables have no impact on children whatsoever.
It’s hard to know what went wrong, but we do know that we’re not allowed to blame poverty when students fail. And you can bet I’m not going to blame the Success Academy’s teachers, who get worked to the bone. Maybe we should just blame Moskowitz.
There is a myth in this country that poverty and race are overwhelming barriers to a child’s ability to learn. This is simply not the case.
She then promotes the exemplar of her own schools, the Success Academy charter network, as the supporting evidence for this statement. “Success Academies are free, K-12 public schools, open to all children. . . . Success Academy schools are at the top of all public schools in the state.”
This is a bit of an aside, but I’d like to throw down the gauntlet here for Ms. Moskowitz. If she is truly committed to the “public” part of education, then why not share all of the wonderful practices and content that makes her schools so successful? I’m someone always seeking to learn from best practices, and I work willingly across charter and district divides.
When the scores came out for the first Common Core-aligned NY state tests last year, and I saw Success Academy II in the Bronx had the highest scores in the city, I tweeted that I wanted to know what they were doing. I’m serious about that.
Share, Ms. Moskowitz, not simply compete. That’s how we can make all our schools better, and not just yours.
Moskowitz then makes the following statements, in which I can find much to agree with:
If we sell low-income, minority children short, because we believe their poverty prevents them from learning, then indeed, they won’t learn. If we want to help our children of color to rise out of poverty, we must give them schools on par with what their more affluent peers have. . . .
I fully concur that we need to make our schools better for students of color and students in poverty AND for students with special needs, and that we must raise our expectations for ALL children. This is why I teach and this is why I blog.
It is very unlikely that students will learn material they are not exposed to, and there is considerable evidence that disadvantaged students are systematically tracked into classrooms with weaker content. Rather than mitigating the effects of poverty, many American schools are exacerbating them.
We need to make our schools better. Our schools are not good enough, particularly for our students who rely on them for opportunities the most.
Moskowitz closes her op-ed with the following statement:
We don’t need so much to “lift” children from poverty as to equip them with the skills and self-confidence to achieve their dreams. We must choose to make schools incubators of opportunity, not poverty traps.
Though I agree with her sentiment, I also think this kind of wishful thinking can be problematic. You can see more evidence in the following statements that Moskowitz made earlier in the post:
We as a nation can’t fix poverty unless we fix education, and we can’t fix education if we keep telling ourselves our schools are “good enough.” . . .
If we give all children a fair start, then the race is theirs to win.
Why do I call this “wishful thinking”? Because essentially, Moskowitz is arguing that if we fix everything in the classroom, then we’ve provided our students of poverty and color with ample opportunity and equity. Then it’s off to the races. Our wonderful American meritocracy will then function as it should.
But it won’t. It won’t because even if we provide the best education in the world in an isolated pocket of poverty, what opportunities will the children in that community have upon their graduation? What social networks will they have to support them as they climb to ever more challenging and higher rungs in professional and academic settings?
Fixing education is not enough, and saying that it is enough is in my opinion wishful thinking because it lets us off the hook, and this letting-us-off-the-hook is why I wrote my last impassioned post about our society’s culpability for the horrendous living situations and life outcomes of too many of our nation’s children. If we think we can fix everything in the classroom, that we can dust off our hands at the end of the day, get into our BMWs and drive off to our wealthier enclaves, eat our organically grown fresh produce, and tell ourselves that we’ve done everything we could, then we are fooling ourselves, and we are letting ourselves and those in power in our society off the hook.
Because making schools better also isn’t “good enough.” It’s important, and it’s the battle Moskowitz and myself and educators throughout our nation get up each morning to do, because we believe in its importance. But if it’s good enough, then we are effectively saying that we are endorsing socio-economic and racial segregation. We are effectively saying that so long as you have yours, and I have mine—and it’s equal—then everything’s going to be OK.
It’s not going to be OK, so long as there’s the other side of the railroad tracks. And it’s not going to be OK when even if we provide a world class education such as Success Academy is claiming to do, our students living in poverty still are not completing college at greater rates nor obtaining higher paid careers (is Success Academy tracking longer term outcomes? That’s what KIPP is doing–they’re taking a hard and honest look at the graduation rates of their scholars, rather than giving themselves high fives).
I love Moskowitz’ idea of schools as “incubators of opportunity.” I’d like to extend that idea to entire communities. The communities of the South Bronx and Brownsville must be cultivated as incubators of opportunity, not just their schools. Detroit and East LA and South Texas should be nurtured and invested in as incubators of opportunity.
A school is part of an ecosystem of a community. What economic opportunities are available? What social and physical capital investments have been made? What sort of public transportation options are there?
Even if we had the best schools in the world in our poorest communities, our work has only just begun. Education is important. But that’s only half the battle.