Wednesday, August 1, 2012

More on the psychology of poverty

One of the most enduring and deeply controversial debates on poverty is about what causes poverty. Conservatives lay the blame for poverty on the poor themselves, specifically their apparent laziness. They point to the stereotyped image of poor people idling away, shirking work and indulging in self-destructive behaviour to validate their claim. However, this argument fails to resolve the causation-correlation problem - whether they are the cause or symptoms of poverty?

Bryan Kaplan writes,
If people are poor because they're behaving irresponsibly, they should be far down our queue of people to help - if they belong on the queue at all... I also happen to think that reducing the generosity of the welfare state and making assistance conditional on good behavior will (eventually) reduce bad behavior... the fact that poor people are often the authors of their own destitution is morally significant and sadly neglected.
I am not very convinced with this reasoning. In fact, I am inclined to agree with recent findings from behavioural sciences research that point to causal links running from poverty to bad behaviours. In particular, they highlight the self-control and commitment challenges imposed on people who are constantly exposed to an environment of scarcity in time and money. In fact, the "bone-headedly simple", "very very bad" choice trade-offs on "drinking" or "smoking" or "single-motherhood", are not as simple as it appears. Consider this parable that may resonate with many of us.

Mr Meritocrat is deeply satisfied man, completely at peace with himself, his world, and his work. He gets up in the morning, attends to his natural calls, drinks the hot coffee served by his servant, reads newspaper and browses the internet from the comfort of his air-conditioned room, switches on the morning television to do yoga, takes bath, has his breakfast, gets driven to office, and has his personal assistant arrange the daily schedule. He then dives deep into his hugely rewarding and enriching work, for which he pockets a fortune each month. And I could go on.
Now consider this counterfactual. He wakes up to find that there is no water in the toilet, no servant to boil tea, and no electricity to read newspaper or browse the internet or do yoga. Worse still, his cook has taken leave, forcing him to prepare his breakfast. After he gets ready, he finds that his vehicle has broken down and he needs to wait till a taxi is hired. Thanks to the delays, he arrives late for the morning meeting. There he finds that a critical functionary has taken leave for the day, rendering the meeting largely superfluous. The cascade of events leds to a build up stress that takes it toll on Mr Meritocrat, whose productivity declines precipitously for the day. The downsward spiral will take many forms and could go a long distance down.
Mr Meritocrats' travails, amplified many times over and in a qualitatively more depressing form, echoes with the plight of a poor slum resident of any Indian city. He wakes up every morning to a day of struggles. A daily routine characterized by a seemingly endless succession of such struggles, drains him/her emotionally and congnitively, and manifests in less than desirable behaviours.

This reasoning considerably complicates the search for explanations for poverty. In any country, even in tightly controlled command economies or despotic autocracies, merit and effort does get rewarded, though the extent varies. However, to draw the simplified linear inference that, therefore, all those not successful do not have the requisite merits is simply misleading. Those apparently "irrepsonsible lifestyles" on "bone-headedly simple" issues are therefore not necessarily a matter of choice.

A more nuanced search for explanations, one that accounts for the serious incentive and behavioural distortions caused by poverty itself, necessary for us to make any meaningful and sustainable dent in addressing the scourge of poverty.

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