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 NS leader: Cold Britannia

Twenty years after the election of New Labour, for the left, it seems, things can only get worse. 

Twenty years after the election of New Labour, for the left, it seems, things can only get worse. The polls suggest a series of grim election defeats across Britain: Labour is 10 points behind the Conservatives even in Wales, putting Theresa May’s party on course to win a majority of seats there for the first time in a century. Meanwhile, in Scotland, the psephologist John Curtice expects the resurgent Tories, under the “centrist” leadership of Ruth Davidson, to gain seats while Labour struggles to cling on to its single MP.

Where did it all go wrong? In this week’s cover essay, beginning on page 26, John Harris traces the roots of Labour’s present troubles back to the scene of one of its greatest triumphs, on 1 May 1997, when it returned 418 MPs to the Commons and ended 18 years of Conservative rule. “Most pop-culture waves turn out to have been the advance party for a new mutation of capitalism, and so it proved with this one,” Mr Harris, one of the contributors to our New Times series, writes. “If Cool Britannia boiled down to anything, it was the birth of a London that by the early Noughties was becoming stupidly expensive and far too full of itself.”

Jump forward two decades and London is indeed now far too dominant in the British economy, sucking in a disproportionate number of graduates and immigrants and then expecting them to pay £4 for a milky coffee and £636,777 for an average house. Tackling the resentment caused by London’s dominance must be an urgent project for the Labour Party. It is one that Mr Corbyn and his key allies, John McDonnell, Emily Thornberry and Diane Abbott, are not well placed to do (all four are ultra-liberals who represent
London constituencies).

Labour must also find a happy relationship with patriotism, which lies beneath many of the other gripes made against Mr Corbyn: his discomfort with the institutions of the British state, his peacenik tendencies, his dislike of Nato and military alliances, his natural inclination towards transnational or foreign liberation movements, rather than seeking to evolve a popular national politics.

New Labour certainly knew how to wave the flag, even if the results made many on the left uncomfortable: on page 33, we republish our Leader from 2 May 1997, which complained about the “bulldog imagery” of Labour’s election campaign. Yet those heady weeks that followed Labour’s landslide victory were a time of optimism and renewal, when it was possible for people on the left to feel proud of their country and to celebrate its achievements, rather than just apologise for its mistakes. Today, Labour has become too reliant on misty invocations of the NHS to demonstrate that it likes or even understands the country it seeks to govern. A new patriotism, distinct from nationalism, is vital to any Labour revival.

That Tony Blair and his government have many detractors hardly needs to be said. The mistakes were grave: the catastrophic invasion of Iraq, a lax attitude to regulating the financial sector, a too-eager embrace of free-market globalisation, and the failure to impose transitional controls on immigration when eastern European states joined the EU. All contributed to the anger and disillusionment that led to the election as Labour leader of first the hapless Ed Miliband and then Jeremy Corbyn, a long-time rebel backbencher.

However, 20 years after the victory of the New Labour government, we should also acknowledge its successes, not least the minimum wage, education reform, Sure Start, a huge fall in pensioner poverty and investment in public services. Things did get better. They can do so again.

The far right halted

For once, the polls were correct. On 23 April, the centrist Emmanuel Macron triumphed in the first round of the French election with 24 per cent of the vote. The Front National’s Marine Le Pen came second with 21.3 per cent in an election in which the two main parties were routed. The two candidates will now face off on 7 May, and with the mainstream candidates of both left and right falling in behind Mr Macron, he will surely be France’s next president.

“There’s a clear distinction to be made between a political adversary and an enemy of the republic,” said Benoît Hamon, the candidate of the governing Parti Socialiste, who had strongly criticised Mr Macron during the campaign. “This is deadly serious now.” He is correct. Mr Macron may be a centrist rather than of the left but he is a democratic politician. Ms Le Pen is a borderline fascist and a victory for her would herald a dark future not just for France but for all of Europe. It is to Donald Trump’s deep shame that he appeared to endorse her on the eve of the vote.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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