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: Getty
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In the fight against climate change, humanity has a choice of two futures

We must fight man-made climate change, says Patricia Scotland. 

So here we are at this fork in the road. On one path, the risk of a future of chaos. A new world map with miles and miles of stormy ocean where there were once islands and schools and playgrounds, businesses and life.

A globe with acre after acre of arid desert where there were once fertile mountains and valleys, green vegetation and food.

A path where our existence is defined by pandemics and migration crises, as the earth’s population tries to squeeze into the ever-reducing areas of habitable land.

In this reality, all the arguments about progress and advancement are consigned to the pages of our history, the only agenda item at international meetings is survival.

But the other fork is an alternative path. From the window of an airplane, with wings that exactly resemble a bird’s feathers, views of healthy mangrove as far as the eye can see, miles of luxurious, green canopy, interrupted by shimmering blue oceans.

Nature in all its glory and striking colours, thriving. And when it meets a city it doesn’t mind pausing for a while, because this metropolis is powered by geothermal energy, and the office buildings are made of carbon-eating concrete that behave like trees, and the mall is modelled after a termite mound. Every roof is lined with solar panels.

Two sides of the same coin. The first possibility a dystopian apocalyptic vision; the other a reality, already happening, which may just prevent and reverse the existential threat on this precious planet we call home. 

Last month, representatives of Commonwealth governments met with climate change experts, academics and businesses to launch an alternative pathway to addressing climate change, one that moves beyond adaptation, beyond mitigation, to actually reversing the human effects of climate change. 

It proposes to regenerate the environment by taking excess carbon and carbon dioxide (CO2) out of the atmosphere, where it is poisoning our planet, and putting it back in the soil where belongs.

This initiative, Regenerative Development to Reverse Climate Change, in collaboration with the Cloudburst Foundation, creates the potential for climate change to become an opportunity for innovation and sustainable, eco-friendly economic growth.

Strong support from some of the greatest environmental advocates, including Prince Charles, Mary Robinson and Anote Tong, and powerful presentations from some of the finest minds in the climate change arena, gave us the gift of possibility.

World-renowned experts like Paul Hawken, Thomas Goreau, Janine Benyus and Ben Haggard pointed out that these innovations are already happening. And it is quite simple really. For years man has watched nature and copied nature and nature has always led the way. How else did we make human flight happen if we did not copy God's own 'animal aircraft'?

We see it in other ways too, and the truth is that we already have amazing examples of biomimicry – technology that mimics nature. The eco-friendly Eastgate Centre in Zimbabwe is modelled after termite mounds. In China, the dry, barren plains of the Loess Plateau have been regenerated and restored to healthy green land; and we have similar examples of land regeneration in Rwanda.

What I am saying is that the genius of man, which created technologies that have huge benefits for human beings but detrimental effects on our environment, is the same genius we will employ to help us through mitigation and adaption, and ultimately to reverse climate change and stop global warming. But there is a fundamental problem. We have ecologists, scientists, environmentalists and academics coming up with these solutions working in silos.

So what the Commonwealth began to do last October, when we had our first climate change reversal workshop, is to bring them together. We invited 60 experts who are pioneering these approaches to climate change to Marlborough House. They explored how we can create an integrated plan on climate change reversal.

My goal is to be able to offer every Commonwealth country a package of multidisciplinary, multisectoral solutions to this multidimensional problem. Collaboration and political will are key, because we will need to weave the ideas into our curriculum, insert them in our building codes and business regulations and integrate them into our gender, agricultural and environmental policies.

But how will cash-strapped countries fund this? This is where initiatives like our Climate Finance Access Hub comes in. This programme gives countries the capacity to make successful applications for funding from the Green Fund and other climate change financing mechanisms.

We also have to listen to what the captains of industry are saying. At our meeting last month, Paul Polman, CEO of the mega-consumer goods company Unilever, stressed that when businesses consider investment they take into account sustainable development goals.

If there is no justice and peace, if there is hunger and destitution and if they are operating in cities which are not sustainable, on land that might be reclaimed by the sea or deteriorate into desert conditions, they are investing in a venture that will fail. So the regenerative approach does not have to come at the cost of economic growth. Actually, it will boost investment and development.

The Commonwealth has been at the forefront of the climate change discussion since the 1980s when it first became topical. Our milestones include the Langkawi Declaration in 1989 which commits us to protect the environment, and our leaders' summit in 2015, days before COP21, was instrumental in the landmark Paris Agreement on climate change. But the empirical evidence shows us that even at 1.5 degrees, islands will disappear into the ocean.

This November when governments convene at COP23, we will be posing the question: which pathway will you take? But this is not just a question for governments and organisations, it is a question for every single individual on this earth.

So what are we going to teach our children? More than 60 per cent of the 2.4 billion people in the Commonwealth are under the age of 30. How are we going to harness this exuberance and abundant talent and transform them into innovative solutions? How are we going to run our businesses and manage waste and energy in our homes? What path are you going to take? One that risks our future? Or one that is built on the principle that we can work with nature instead of against it to progress and develop?

Patricia Scotland is Secretary-General of the Commonwealth

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