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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A third runway at Heathrow will disproportionately benefit the super rich

The mean income of leisure passengers at Heathrow in 2014 was £61,000.

The story goes that expanding Heathrow is a clear-cut policy decision, essential for international trade, jobs and growth. The disruption for those that live around the airport can be mitigated, but ultimately must be suffered for the greater good.

But almost every part of this story is misleading or false. Far from guaranteeing post-Brexit prosperity, a new runway will primarily benefit wealthy frequent flyers taking multiple holidays every year, with local residents and taxpayers picking up the tab.

Expanding Heathrow is not about boosting international trade. The UK is only marginally reliant on air freight to trade with the rest of the world. Total air freight traffic in the UK is actually lower now than it was in 1995, and most UK trade is with Europe, of which only 0.1 per cent goes by air. Internationally, as much as 90 per cent of trade in goods goes by ship because transporting by plane is far too expensive. And in any case our most successful exports are in services, which don’t require transportation. So the idea that UK plc simply cannot trade without an expansion at Heathrow is a gross exaggeration.

Any talk of wider economic benefits is also highly dubious. The Department for Transport’s forecasts show that the great majority of growth in flights will come from leisure passengers. Our tourism deficit is already gaping, with more money pouring out of the country from holidaymakers than comes in from foreign tourists. What’s worse is that this deficit worsens regional disparities since money gets sucked out of all parts of the country but foreign tourists mostly pour money back into London. As for jobs, government estimates suggest that investing in rail would create more employment.

As for the public purse, the aviation sector is undeniably bad for our Treasury. Flights are currently exempt from VAT and fuel duty – a tax subsidy worth as much as £10bn. If these exemptions were removed each return flight would be about £100 more expensive. This is a wasteful and regressive situation that not only forfeits badly needed public funds but also stimulates the demand for flights even further. Heathrow expansion itself will directly lead to significant new public sector costs, including the cost of upgrading Heathrow’s connecting infrastructure, increased pressure on the NHS from pollution-related disease, and the time and money that will have to be ploughed into a decade of legal battles.

So you have to wonder: where is this greater public good that local residents are asked to make such a sacrifice for?

And we must not forget the other sacrifice we’re making: commitment to our fair share of global climate change mitigation. Building more runways creates more flights, just as building more roads has been found to increase traffic. With no clean alternatives to flying, the only way to meet our climate targets is to do less of it.

The real reason for expanding Heathrow is to cater for the huge expected increase in leisure flying, which will come from a small and relatively rich part of the population. At present it’s estimated that 70 per cent of flights are taken by 15 per cent of the population; and 57 per cent of us took no flights abroad at all in 2013. The mean income of leisure passengers at Heathrow in 2014 was £61,000, which is nearly three times the UK median income.

This is in stark contrast to the communities that live directly around airports that are constantly subjected to dirty air and noise pollution. In the case of London City Airport, Newham – already one of London’s most deprived boroughs – suffers air and noise pollution in return for few local jobs, while its benefits are felt almost entirely by wealthy business travellers.

Something needs to change. At the New Economics Foundation we’re arguing for a frequent flyer levy that would give each person one tax-free return flight every year. After that it would introduce a charge that gets bigger with each extra flight, cracking down on those that use their wealth to abuse the system by taking many flights every year. This is based on a simple principle: those who fly more should pay more.

A frequent flyer levy would open up the benefits of air travel, reducing costs for those struggling to afford one family holiday a year, while allowing us to meet our climate targets and eliminate the need for any new runways. It would also generate millions for the public purse in an efficient and progressive way.

We have to take back control over an airports system that is riding roughshod over communities and our environment, with little perceivable benefit except for a small group of frequent flyers.

Stephen Devlin is a senior economist at the New Economics Foundation.