The really shameful thing about poverty

When I first started coming across commentaries a few years ago about a new school of research that linked poverty to poor behavioural patterns, my initial reaction was one of indignation.

Talk about blaming the victim, I muttered under my breath, as yet another op-ed filtered onto my computer screen suggesting this.

The theory was popularised in 2013, after the publication of the book Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much, by Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir, a Harvard economist and a Princeton psychologist.

The idea is that when people are short of something - money, time, affection - their minds start to get fixated on the thing they lack. Their mind then reacts in two ways. First, it develops a hyperfocus on the thing they lack. If they lack friends, their minds zoom in on a ghost of a smile. If they lack money, their minds are better able to grasp the cost of things.

But anxiety over their scarcity also taxes their brain, leaving little “mental bandwidth” as the writers call it, to deal with decisions. They may then end up performing poorer than normal in exams, or in cognitive tests, or making bad choices.

The two writers did experiments on people, including sugarcane farmers in India before and after money from their harvests come in. They found that people made better decisions when they were flush with cash than when they needed money.

So the theory is that very poor people are so worried about having enough food, a roof over their heads and money to pay bills, that they may “neglect to weed their crops, vaccinate their children, wash their hands, treat their water, take their pills or eat properly when pregnant”, as The Economist summed it up.

My initial reaction to such research was scepticism and irritation.

Many people, especially those born to poor families, are poor because of circumstances. 

Saying that their poverty then hinders them from making good decisions seems like adding insult to injury. Many of us come from poor families, whose parents may be uneducated, but who made many good decisions for the family. 

They worked hard, they saved hard, and they nagged us to study hard. So the children studied hard, which helped them secure good jobs, and then they too worked hard and saved hard in their turn. Hundreds of thousands of Singaporeans have broken out of the poverty trap that way, and brought their parents into a comfortable retirement.

But I later understood that the writers were talking about extreme scarcity - not just families which might be in the bottom 20 per cent of households, but those who are down to their last $5, who don’t know where their next meal is coming from, and don’t have money for their children’s recess.

Then I could entertain the possibility that such constant mental stress can cause parents to make poor decisions for their children .

How then to help the poor?


My colleague Toh Yong Chuan wrote that it was more realistic to forget the parents and focus on helping the children. Where necessary, and where the home environment was negative, let the teenager stay in a boarding school where he will get help with schoolwork, a disciplined timetable, and a drug-free, crime-free, environment.

His commentary drew a heart-felt rebuttal from sociology professor Teo You Yenn, who argues that the way we view poor people determine the kind of solutions we come out with to help them.

From her research talking to low-income households, she says, she finds that they are very much invested in their children, and try to make good choices for them. 

However, when the choices have a bad outcome, they may lack resources to mitigate the consequences. She cites a real case of someone she knows: a foreign woman married a Singaporean, moved here and had a child with him. But she didn’t register for the baby to be Singaporean at birth. 

“Soon after, she was widowed, and several attempts to secure citizenship failed. Her daughter Jen (not her real name) has been living in Singapore for most of her life and knows no other home. Jen's mother encouraged her in her studies and she has just completed her A levels. Their limited income and Jen's lack of citizenship, however, means that she has accumulated arrears in school fees. Unless she pays, her certificate will not be released, barring her from university. The few thousand dollars owed seem insurmountable and the "bad choice" of not applying for citizenship immediately means the vast difference between upward mobility and stasis.”

You Yenn also points out that society tends to assume that poor parents are more neglectful or abusive to their children.

As many of us from poor but loving and functioning families know, that is a patent untruth and a gross over-generalisation. You Yenn points out that “comparable actions are judged differently across class”. For example, a child may be left at home alone or with a domestic worker. In both cases, the parents are working and leave the child. Yet society would treat the first as neglect, but view the second as normal. 

Yet which method is better for the child’s upbringing and values? 

Those of us who fended for ourselves, in the long afternoons after primary school, sans maid, sans tutor, sans grandparent, learnt how to take care of our own meals and managed our time, while those with the domestic maid may grow up feeling entitled, used to having meals served on a platter - literally - and having someone else pick up after them. 

I think the research on scarcity and the very poor is useful in giving us a better idea of how extreme poverty stresses people. But it should not be used as a stick with which to beat the poor.

The solution is to raise people from extreme poverty - give them enough, so they are not on the brink of starvation - into the land of the ordinary poor. 

This is an easy sentence to write, but it has immense implications on our social policy. For one thing, it means having a higher Public Assistance allowance so those receiving it don’t have to eat only plain rice with gravy, or live in the dark at night to save on electricity bills. 

It means relooking our wage model and having what is called a “living wage” - wages of a sufficient level for people to live with dignity. Then we won’t have the situation of old folks working 12 hours a day, six days a week, for $800 wages that aren’t enough to pay for their rent, utilities, basic meals, and bus fare.

We have to remember that there is no shame, no stigma, and no mental deficit to being poor. But where there is extreme poverty, and people are on the brink of starvation in a very wealthy country like Singapore, it is indeed a shameful thing. 

On the rest of us, and the way our society is organised.

Chua Mui Hoong blogs regularly on notable issues and commentaries.