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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Why Nigel Farage is hoovering up all the women I know

Beware young fogeys.

I can’t remember where I was when I first worked out that I was older than Nigel Farage. You’d think after that bombshell went off, you’d still be able to locate the crater. Anyway, there it is: the cut-price little Oswald Mosley is about a year younger than me.

I mention this not because I want to dwell on the nasty piece of shit, but because I’ve been having to face, at one remove, so to speak, the problem of young fogeyism. It seems to be all around. And not only that, it’s hoovering up women I know.

The first time it happened was with B——. She was going to come round last weekend, but then emailed to cancel the day before, because she was going to watch rugby – apparently there’s some kind of tournament on, but it never seems to end – with her boyfriend. How ghastly, I said, or words to that effect; I’d rather die.

She then made the Category One mistake of saying, “Rugby, cricket, all the same to me,” with a cheeky little “x” at the end of it.

I replied thus: Rugby is a violent and brutal game (the coy term is “contact sport”, which means you get to – indeed, are encouraged to – injure the opposing team as often as you can, in the absence of any other tactic) loved by fascists, or, at best, those with suspicious ideas about the order of society with which I doubt you, B——, would wish to be aligned. Also, only people of immense bulk and limited intelligence can play it. Cricket is a game of deep and subtle strategy, capable of extraordinary variation, which is appreciated across the class spectrum, and is also so democratically designed that even the less athletic – such as I – can play it. [I delete here, for your comfort, a rant of 800 or so words in which I develop my theory that cricket is a bulwark against racism, and rugby, er, isn’t.] Both are dismayingly over-represented at the national level by ex-public-school boys; cricket as a matter of historical accident (the selling-off of school playing fields under Thatcher and Major), rugby as a matter of policy. Have a lovely day watching it.

Two things to note. 1) This woman is not, by either birth or ancestry, from a part of the world where rugby is played. 2) You wouldn’t have thought she was one of nature’s rugby fans, as she considers that Jeremy Corbyn is a good person to be leading the Labour Party. (True, thousands of Tories think the same thing, but for completely different reasons.)

That’s Exhibit A. Exhibit B is my old friend C——, whom I haven’t seen for about five years or so but suddenly pops up from the past to say hello, how about a drink? I always liked C—— very much, largely because she’s very funny and, let’s be frank about this, something of a sexpot. She seems keen to bring someone over with her who, reading between the lines like a modern-day Sherlock Holmes, I deduce to be her latest partner. The thing is, she says, she’s not sure he can come, because he might be going beagling.


Well, she does come round (alone, thank goodness) and she’s looking even better than I remember, and is even funnier, too, and she shows me some of the pictures she has put up on her profile page on some dating site, and they’re not the kind of photographs this magazine will ever publish, let’s leave it at that. (One of them even moves.) And, as it turns out – and it doesn’t really surprise me that much – the young beagler she is seeing is a good thirty years-plus younger than she, and his photograph shows him to be all ears and curls, like a transporter mix-up between Prince Charles and the young David Gower. Like B——’s young man, he is not called Gervaise or Peregrine but may as well be.

What on Earth is going on here? Can we blame Farage? I can understand the pull of the void, but this is getting ridiculous. Do they not quite understand what they’re doing? Actually, C—— does, because she’s had her eyes open all her life, and B——, her youth and political idealism notwithstanding, didn’t exactly come down in the last shower, either.

So what is it with these young wannabe toffs – one of whom isn’t even rich? “You’d like him,” C—— says, but I’m not so sure. People who go beagling sure as hell don’t like me, and I see no reason not to return the favour.

Well, I can’t thrash this out here. C—— leaves, but not before giving me the kind of kiss that makes me wish Binkie Beagley, or whatever his name is, would just wink out of existence.

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times