Part Two: Lowering Bandwidth Tax for Families in Poverty

Have you ever sat in a meeting where a colleague put a plate of cookies in the middle of the table? If, like me, you watch your weight, you were probably proud that you resisted the temptation to eat one of the cookies.

But self-control costs more than you realize. Research shows you paid less attention during the meeting because some of your focus was on not eating cookies. In fact, dieters fare poorly on test after test compared to non-dieters.

A lack of nutrition doesn’t explain the difference. According to Eldar Shafir and Sendhil Mullainathan, co-authors of Scarcity: The New Science of Having Less and How It Defines Our Lives, there is a psychology of scarcity which operates whenever a person is managing with too few resources: busy people who have a scarcity of time, hungry people who have a scarcity of food or poor people who have a scarcity of money.

Shafir and Mullainathan show repeatedly that managing scarce resources uses up so much energy and emotion that there isn’t much brain power left for the normal, hard tasks of daily living. They call this the “bandwidth tax.”

The bandwidth tax for dieters may be small, but it is significant for people living in poverty. Research suggests the impact of the bandwidth tax for people living in poverty is equal to the impact of pulling an all-nighter before a test – a drop of more than 10 IQ points. Yet for people living in poverty, this isn’t a one-time situation. It is ongoing.

Unless programs that aim to lift people out of poverty acknowledge and address the bandwidth tax, they are likely to fail.

On December 1, 2016, Shafir joined me and a few DC government leaders to explore how government policy and practice could be improved by using the concepts detailed in his book.

Laura Zeilinger, director of the DC Department of Human Services, shared one way DHS is applying Scarcity principles: training their front line staff in “motivational interviewing,” a technique which helps consumers identify their specific barriers to employment or housing and make a plan to reduce those one at a time. One way to think about this technique is that it acknowledges the lack of bandwidth faced by people living in poverty and focuses them on increasing bandwidth bit by bit.

This is a smart first step. In the analogy I used in part one of this blog, we can teach a child to swim, but in a stormy sea she can’t make it to shore without a life boat. Motivational interviewing will help the child float for longer until that life boat arrives. To stretch the metaphor, it might even teach some people how to build a life raft. But, to fully work, we need to change the situation: reduce the complex bureaucracy which requires a resident to go to several offices, return many times and bring reams of paperwork before the government provides urgent and needed services. Because low-income people rely more heavily on government services than middle and upper income people, they pay a higher price for this inefficiency.

The good news is that the stormy sea metaphor fails in one important regard: None of us can calm the waters in a real stormy sea. But, working together, we can make government more effective and efficient so that low-income people don’t pay a higher bandwidth tax.

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