Lifting families out of poverty: Ease stress of day-to-day survival so poor can plan a better future

When people think about poverty, it is often viewed in the context of money. How much does he earn? Is it enough for the family? But in the course of speaking to people from low-income households last week for a Sunday Times report ("The faces behind the aid figures"; Feb 28), I was struck by something more than their shortage of money: a tendency to shy away from planning for the future, because they are so stressed and concerned about immediate financial worries. This sometimes led them to make decisions that the better-off find hard to understand.

For example, it is baffling why a couple struggling with finances would want to have seven children, and why the single mother would commit to the big purchase of a new four-room flat despite mounting debt. Or why the elderly karung guni man would spend over half of his $450 monthly government handout on cigarettes and beer when he has no savings.

Researchers have found that very poor families throughout the world spend more of their income on alcohol than on educating their children - or even on food. Studies have also shown that they do not plan for the future compared to better-off folk, and some have less self-control and are quicker to turn to instant gratification. While some may take a deterministic view, thinking that people become poor because they have such innate traits, recent research suggests otherwise: that it is the state of poverty, and the stress that comes with it, that pushes very poor people to make bad decisions.

 

Harvard economist Sendhil Mullainathan and Princeton psychologist Eldar Shafir, in their 2013 book Scarcity, found that economic stress robs people of cognitive bandwidth - the portion of mental capacity used to make decisions. Rushing around worrying about bills, food or other immediate problems leaves people with less cognitive capacity to make good decisions, think ahead or practise self-discipline.Urgent demands of the moment override planning for the future.

That is perhaps why a food-stall assistant featured in The Sunday Times would rather take on extra part-time jobs in the weekends to get fast cash than go for a skills upgrading course to get a better- paying job. And why the single mother is reluctant to take a little time off work to renew her application for government grants, or meet her debtors to negotiate better repayment plans.

Under overwhelming circumstances, people living in extreme poverty lack the time and mental will to assess their situation or think of alternatives. They may not even realise they have choices.

This creates a vicious circle because people end up making decisions that leave them worse off, such as taking out high-interest loans or buying on instalment. In settling today's problems, they create debts for tomorrow.

The question then is: How can the poor be relieved of their cognitive stress of day-to-day survival so they are able to plan for a better future?

If extreme poverty exacts a mental toll, the most direct way to help them would be to help them cancel their debts. Methodist Welfare Services (MWS) started a programme in 2014 for low-income families that matches debt repayment dollar-for-dollar up to $100 a month.

It found that the 34 families given such help reduced their debt from a total of $256,000 to $175,000 over a year. In comparison, another 34 families not given the funds saw their collective debt increase by $18,000 over the same period.

MWS assistant director Cindy Ng said: "Chronic debt is one of the major factors that perpetuates their poverty and if they are always fighting fires and thinking about putting food on the table, their ability to deal with longer-term issues is limited. For instance, they are less likely to seek skills upgrading which may help them break out of the poverty circle."

Another practical way would be to make it easier for the needy to access help. The poor often work long hours and can apply for aid only after work. Yet most of the 24 social service offices are open only during office hours and are closed at weekends.

A third solution is to make it easy for those in dire straits to opt for good decisions. For example, they can be automatically enrolled in a savings scheme, with part of their pay or government grants channelled into a rainy-day fund.

Last, improving their living environment can reduce mental stress. The poor, such as the featured family of eight who squeeze into a one-room rental flat the size of three parking spaces, often have to deal with living in small, crowded spaces. Neuroscientists at Princeton University found that a cluttered environment reduces one's ability to focus and process information.

Mr Cayden Woo of Chen Su Lan Methodist Children's Home, which runs home improvement projects for low-income families, said: "Adults often bring their stress back home from work and when they see the physical mess at home, their frustration escalates. But after helping them declutter and reorganise the space, they become more positive when communicating or parenting."

Poverty has a clear link to bad choices. Rather than blame the poor for making such choices, it is more constructive to understand that the mental stress of coping with day-to-day needs drives them to make bad choices - and then work to reduce that daily stress. Helping struggling families cope better in the present will help them reach a brighter future in which their children will not be propelled towards bad choices.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 03, 2016, with the headline 'Ease stress of day-to-day survival so poor can plan a better future'. Print Edition | Subscribe