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 Deep Dive podcast: Mandates and Manifestos

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Ian Leslie and Stewart Wood return for another episode of the Deep Dive. This time they're plunging into the murky world of election promises with Catherine Haddon, resident historian at the Institute of Government. Together they explore what an electoral mandate means, what a manifesto is for, and why we can't sue the government when they fail to keep their promises.

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