Face to Face with Inequality

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Reflection as a Luxury Good

Maria Konnikova has an excellent article in the New York Times today, entitled “No Money, No Time: The Poor Are Under a Deadline that Never Lifts.” She sums up the experimental work of Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir on the effects of poverty and works her way backwards to reality, applying their conclusions to the lives of the people at the bottom of the heap. In the lab, people in artificially induced states of poverty perform worse than people operating under conditions of abundance. Mullainathan and Shafir also conclude that they tend to solve for the present moment more–meaning they borrow, handicapping their future performance.

Mullainathan and Shafir decompose poverty into three components: lack of money, lack of time, and lack of bandwidth (by which the mean the ability do dedicate sufficient mental resources to any given problem so as to make good decisions). Their argument is that a lack of money correlates with a lack of time in the real world, and that both conspire to reduce available bandwidth for decision-making.

Shafir recommends designing programs to reduce bandwidth demands and uses the FAFSA as an example:

“If I give people a very complicated form, it’s a big demand on cognitive capacity,” Mr. Shafir says. “Take something like the Fafsa” — the Free Application for Federal Student Aid — “Why is pickup for the low-income families less than 30 percent? People are already overwhelmed, and you go and give them an incredibly complicated form.”

To him, the obvious conclusion is to radically change our thinking. “Just like you wouldn’t charge them $1,000 to fill out a form, you shouldn’t charge them $1,000 in cognitive complexity,” he says. One study found that if you offer help with filling out the Fafsa form, pickup goes up significantly.

Interestingly, their work also seems to support one of the tentative findings from FAIR Money’s Payday loan study, that talking about one’s situation, even if only to a researcher who offered no comment, seemed to have an effect on decisions about how to handle one’s financial dilemmas. By paying people to participate in our study and talk about their situation, we paid them to take time to reflect, alleviating some of the pressure on two of those three dimensions of poverty.


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Homeless in Silicon Valley

Moyers & Company aired a segment on homelessness in Silicon Valley this April. Moyer’s observes in the prelude:

California’s Silicon Valley is a microcosm of America’s new extremes of wealth and poverty. Business is better than it’s been in a decade, with companies like Facebook, Google and Apple minting hundreds of new tech millionaires. But not far away, the homeless are building tent cities along a creek in the city of San Jose. Homelessness rose 20 percent in the past two years, food stamp participation is at a 10-year high, and the average income for Hispanics, who make up a quarter of the area’s population, fell to a new low of about $19,000 a year — in a place where the average rent is $2000 a month.

All of the above is true, but it doesn’t capture the full range of economic inequality in Silicon Valley. The phrase “hollowing out the middle” Moyer’s discusses further on is more accurate. That term describes a process which has largely gone unseen and unheard in Silicon Valley, but which affects people across a surprising range of income brackets and occupations. Over the course of the Fair Money project we found people struggling at income levels in the six figures as well as at income levels far below that level. Homelessness is up in Silicon Valley, but homelessness is only the most visible example of a more general process.

Nor does Moyer’s segment do justice to the ingenuity and innovations deployed by those facing harsh economic realities. People do not passively accept their circumstances; they actively transform them. While the phrase “hollowing out the middle” and the signs of homelessness grab headlines, the process of filling in the gaps and getting on with living is a hopeful accompaniment.

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Rising Poverty

The Brookings Institution just released a report showing a 64% increase in poverty in suburban America between 2000 and 2011. (While the headline focuses on the suburbs, the cities saw a 29% rise in poverty, which by any reckoning is newsworthy in itself.) An infographic offers a quick synopsis, which talks about implications in terms of policy (mentioning schools and transit). The implications for the people in question undoubtedly are much more complex than that.