Michael Gove is right: some poor families do budget badly - but it's not their fault

As the new book Scarcity shows, a severe lack of money systematically impairs our ability to focus, make decisions and control our impulses.

On Monday Michael Gove landed himself in hot water when, after visiting a food bank in his Surrey Heath constituency, he claimed that the financial pressures which force people to go to food banks "are often the result of decisions that they have taken which mean they are not best able to manage their finances."

The implication of this is that some families run out of money, and thus need to resort to food banks, as a result of their own, avoidable, error. Needless to say, this caused quite a controversy and Labour was quick to denounce his comments as "insulting and out of touch".

So, who is right? Are some families failing to make sensible budgeting decisions, or are they blameless? A new branch of psychology suggests that, paradoxically, both of these answers may be true. Scarcity, a new book co-authored by Eldar Shafir, a Princeton psychologist, and Sendhil Mullainathan, an economist from Harvard, investigates how the feeling of having too little affects the way we think. They report experiment after experiment demonstrating that a severe lack of time, friends, or money, systematically impairs our ability to focus, make decisions and control our impulses. All pretty important skills when you’re trying to develop, and stick to, a tight budget.

Their findings are remarkably general, and the effects are severe. In one study they found that prompting poor people to think about money before conducting a reasoning task reduced their cognitive abilities by about the same amount as missing a whole night’s sleep. This is a remarkable finding - I probably couldn’t tie my own shoelaces in the morning if I missed a whole night's sleep.

What’s worse, the feeling of scarcity causes us to focus on our most pressing needs, to the point that we disregard less immediate concerns. This 'tunnelling effect', for which Shafir and Mullainathan present a wealth of evidence, helps explain why the poor, be they in Manchester or Mumbai, regularly take out payday loans at exorbitant interest rates. Considerations about the additional costs of paying back the loan fall 'outside of the tunnel”, and en; up dragging people into further financial trouble, trapping them in scarcity.

And here's the real kicker; when otherwise rich and successful people have scarcity imposed on them in a controlled experiment, they show very similar reductions in cognitive capacity. The poor don’t make these decisions because they are short-sighted, or lazy. The very fact that they are poor causes them to behave in predictably irrational ways. In other words, if Michael Gove was as hard up as some of his less fortunate constituents, he would be just as likely to end up at the food bank as the result of his own, avoidable, budgeting errors.

To be fair to Gove, he made his incendiary remark as part of a more constructive point about the need to provide education in household budgeting and finance. But this misses the point. It’s not that poor people don’t know how to budget, in fact they have far more experience of managing a tight budget than the rich. The problem is the temporary reduction in cognitive capacity bought about by being hard-up. The authors argue that this makes traditional financial management courses particularly inappropriate. People who are consumed with worry about how they will pay the next bill are simply not in the right frame of mind to take a module on double-entry book keeping. Far better, perhaps, would be to design policies and financial tools in a way that takes into account the effect of scarcity on how we think.

Some hard-up families probably do make bad budgeting deisions; but it’s hardly their fault.

Sam Sims is a researcher at the Institute for Government

Michael Gove at last year's Conservative conference in Birmingham. Photograph: Getty Images.

Sam Sims is a researcher at the Institute for Government

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The 4 most unfortunate Nazi-EU comparisons made by Brexiteers

Don't mention the war.

On Tuesday morning, the Prime Minister Theresa May made her overtures to Europe. Britain wanted to be, she declared “the best friend and neighbour to our European partners”.

But on the other side of the world, her Foreign secretary was stirring up trouble. Boris Johnson, on a trade mission to India, said of the French President:

“If Mr Hollande wants to administer punishment beatings to anybody who seeks to escape [the EU], in the manner of some World War Two movie, I don't think that is the way forward, and it's not in the interests of our friends and partners.”

His comments were widely condemned, with EU Brexit negotiator Guy Verhofstadt calling them “abhorrent”.

David Davis, the Brexit secretary, then piled in with the declaration: “If we can cope with World War Two, we can cope with this."

But this isn’t the first time the Brexiteers seemed to be under the impression they are part of a historical re-enactment society. Here are some of the others:

1. When Michael Gove compared economist to Nazis

During the EU referendum campaign, when economic organisation after economic organisation predicted a dire financial hangover from Brexit, the arch-Leaver Tory MP is best known for his retort that people “have had enough of experts”.

But Gove also compared economic experts to the Nazi scientists who denounced Albert Einstein in the 1930s, adding “they got 100 German scientists in the pay of the government to say he was wrong”. 

(For the record, the major forecasts came from a mixture of private companies, internationally-based organisations, and charities, as well as the Treasury).

Gove later apologised for his “clumsy” historical analogy. But perhaps his new chum, Donald Trump, took note. In a recent tweet attacking the US intelligence agencies, he demanded: “Are we living in Nazi Germany?”

2. When Leave supporters channelled Basil Fawlty

Drivers in Oxfordshire had their journey interrupted by billboards declaring: “Halt Ze German Advance! Vote Leave”. 

The posters used the same logo as the Vote Leave campaign – although as the outcry spread Vote Leave denied it had anything to do with it. Back in the 1970s, all-Germans-are-Nazi views were already so tired that Fawlty Towers made a whole episode mocking them.

Which is just as well, because the idea of the Nazis achieving their evil empire through tedious regulatory standards directives and co-operation with French socialists is a bunch of bendy bananas.   

3. When Boris Johnson said the EU shared aims with Hitler

Saying that, Boris Johnson (him again) still thinks there’s a comparison to be had. 

In May, Johnson told the Telegraph that while Brussels bureaucrats are using “different methods” to Hitler, they both aim to create a European superstate with Germany at its heart.

Hitler wanted to unite the German-speaking peoples, invade Eastern Europe and enslave its people, and murder the European Jews. He embraced violence and a totalitarian society. 

The European Union was designed to prevent another World War, protect the rights of minorities and smaller nations, and embrace the tedium of day-long meetings about standardised mortgage fact sheets.

Also, as this uncanny Johnson lookalike declared in the Telegraph in 2013, Germany is “wunderbar” and there is “nothing to fear”.

4. When this Ukip candidate quoted Mein Kampf

In 2015, Kim Rose, a Ukip candidate in Southampton, decided to prove his point that the EU was a monstrosity by quoting from a well-known book.

The author recommended that “the best way to take control” over a people was to erode it “by a thousand tine and almost imperceptible reductions”.

Oh, and the book was Mein Kampf, Hitler's erratic, rambling, anti-Semitic pre-internet conspiracy theory. As Rose explained: “My dad’s mother was Jewish. Hitler was evil, I'm just saying the EU is evil as well.”
 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.