David Brooks on the psychology of poverty

Last Friday, New York Times columnist David Brooks had a great piece summarizing some recent research on the psychology of poverty by Harvard’s Sendhil Mullainathan and Princeton’s Eldar Shafir. I highlighted their work recently in a piece in TNR, but Brooks' piece is worth reading, as he details a number of yet-to-be-published experiments on what Mullainathan and Shafir are framing as the “psychology of scarcity.” They are grouping money scarcity (poverty), time scarcity, and calorie scarcity (dieting) together under this banner.  It’s a potentially valuable frame, and it will be interesting to see how they elaborate it. The idea that dieters are calorie scarce and that most busy people are time scarce in the same way that the poor are money scarce is a bit distracting, however, from the magnitude of their breakthrough in regard to poverty. Of course, dieters are choosing to diet, and many busy people are choosing to be busy. In other words, for two of their categories, the cause of scarcity is often desire, whereas the poor are money scarce due to forces mostly beyond their control. In the end, it may be that poverty is best dealt with distinctly.

In any case, the research is absolutely fascinating, and I’m sure there will be a lot more of interest in their book, which I believe will be titled “The Packing Problem,” when it comes out next year. It’s also worth checking out this paper that Mullainathan and Shafir (along with Michael Barr) did for the New America Foundation on “Behaviorally Informed Financial Services.”


Jamie Holmes is a Future Tense Fellow at New America and the author of Nonsense: The Power of Not Knowing. Previously, he was a policy analyst within New America’s Global Assets Project.