Rethinking Scarcity: Real and Imagined Constraints

My dad, Marshall Singleton, grew up in scarcity. Though the post-World War II era was a time of abundance for many in the United States, his people hailed from Appalachian Kentucky. To escape their poverty, his grandpa, Daddy-Paw Matt, traveled north with his family toward the hope of prosperity (he also was fleeing a local feud, but that’s another story). Eventually, factory work and hobby-farming allowed my grandpa, my dad’s dad, to patch together a living. But even with money flowing in, with seven children, there was barely enough. As my dad tells it, on breaks from school, they often went barefoot to save their one pair of shoes for occasions when they were required.

In a recent Morning Edition segment on National Public Radio called “How Scarcity Trap Affects Our Thinking, Behavior,” social science correspondent Shankar Vedantam spoke with Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir, authors of Scarcity: Why Having Little Means So Much, about this type of scarcity that is still a reality for many in the United States and around the world. Their research has shown that actual scarcity—whether money, time, or any other resource so severely limited that it can’t be increased—creates a “scarcity mindset” in which decisions are made for short-term survival but limit long-term hope for improvement, what they call the “scarcity trap.”

“Scarcity, whether of time or money, tends to focus the mind on immediate challenges. You stretch your budget to make ends meet. People in the grip of scarcity are tightly focused on meeting their urgent needs, but that focus comes at a price. Important things on the periphery get ignored,” Vendantam summarized.

“That’s at the heart of the scarcity trap. You are so focused on the urgent that the important gets waylaid. But because the important gets waylaid, you’re experiencing even more scarcity tomorrow,” Mullainathan reiterated.

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