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

Photo: André Spicer
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“It’s scary to do it again”: the five-year-old fined £150 for running a lemonade stand

Enforcement officers penalised a child selling home-made lemonade in the street. Her father tells the full story. 

It was a lively Saturday afternoon in east London’s Mile End. Groups of people streamed through residential streets on their way to a music festival in the local park; booming bass could be heard from the surrounding houses.

One five-year-old girl who lived in the area had an idea. She had been to her school’s summer fête recently and looked longingly at the stalls. She loved the idea of setting up her own stall, and today was a good day for it.

“She eventually came round to the idea of selling lemonade,” her father André Spicer tells me. So he and his daughter went to their local shop to buy some lemons. They mixed a few jugs of lemonade, the girl made a fetching A4 sign with some lemons drawn on it – 50p for a small cup, £1 for a large – and they carried a table from home to the end of their road. 

“People suddenly started coming up and buying stuff, pretty quickly, and they were very happy,” Spicer recalls. “People looked overjoyed at this cute little girl on the side of the road – community feel and all that sort of stuff.”

But the heart-warming scene was soon interrupted. After about half an hour of what Spicer describes as “brisk” trade – his daughter’s recipe secret was some mint and a little bit of cucumber, for a “bit of a British touch” – four enforcement officers came striding up to the stand.

Three were in uniform, and one was in plain clothes. One uniformed officer turned the camera on his vest on, and began reciting a legal script at the weeping five-year-old.

“You’re trading without a licence, pursuant to x, y, z act and blah dah dah dah, really going through a script,” Spicer tells me, saying they showed no compassion for his daughter. “This is my job, I’m doing it and that’s it, basically.”

The girl burst into tears the moment they arrived.

“Officials have some degree of intimidation. I’m a grown adult, so I wasn’t super intimidated, but I was a bit shocked,” says Spicer. “But my daughter was intimidated. She started crying straight away.”

As they continued to recite their legalese, her father picked her up to try to comfort her – but that didn’t stop the officers giving her stall a £150 fine and handing them a penalty notice. “TRADING WITHOUT LICENCE,” it screamed.


Picture: André Spicer

“She was crying and repeating, ‘I’ve done a bad thing’,” says Spicer. “As we walked home, I had to try and convince her that it wasn’t her, it wasn’t her fault. It wasn’t her who had done something bad.”

She cried all the way home, and it wasn’t until she watched her favourite film, Brave, that she calmed down. It was then that Spicer suggested next time they would “do it all correctly”, get a permit, and set up another stand.

“No, I don’t want to, it’s a bit scary to do it again,” she replied. Her father hopes that “she’ll be able to get over it”, and that her enterprising spirit will return.

The Council has since apologised and cancelled the fine, and called on its officials to “show common sense and to use their powers sensibly”.

But Spicer felt “there’s a bigger principle here”, and wrote a piece for the Telegraph arguing that children in modern Britain are too restricted.

He would “absolutely” encourage his daughter to set up another stall, and “I’d encourage other people to go and do it as well. It’s a great way to spend a bit of time with the kids in the holidays, and they might learn something.”

A fitting reminder of the great life lesson: when life gives you a fixed penalty notice, make lemonade.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.