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‘Scarcity’ by Eldar Shafir and Sendhil Mullainathan

"Scarcity" by Sendhill Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir.

Everyone knows what it’s like to lack something. Perhaps the most common example is time: too many things to do, not enough hours to get them done. Others struggle with too little money, or companionship, or access to health care.

These might all seem like very different issues. But according to Harvard University economics professor Sendhil Mullainathan and Princeton University psychology and public-policy professor Eldar Shafir in their new book, “Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much,” scarcity “forms a common chord across so many of society’s problems.”

The two researchers end up making a compelling, important argument, and “Scarcity” is likely to change how you view both entrenched poverty and your own ability — or inability —to get as much done as you’d like.


The book weaves three main points. The first, and possibly most important, has to do with scarcity and “bandwidth.’’ Bandwidth basically means how much of our mental capacity is available to us at a given time. All sorts of distractions can sap our bandwidth; you and I may have the same IQ, but if you’re operating on three hours of sleep, have countless bills piling up, and are dealing with a sick golden retriever at home, while I have none of these concerns, you’re likely to do a much poorer job than I am on a variety of cognitive tasks.

The second examines how scarcity — the sense of having more needs than resources to satisfy them — can play out in the real world, particularly in regards to the poor. In Shafir and Mullainathan’s view, arguments about the poor having inferior personal or work habits or morals miss the point.

The strains on bandwidth they face offer a more persuasive explanation for why poverty so often begets poverty. If you’re an impoverished, single mom trying to juggle part-time work and child-rearing, for example, you may fail to perform any number of routine but important tasks — renewing food stamps or signing up for adult-education classes — not because you are lazy, but because your brain is overloaded by worry and stress.


Sendhil Mullainathan. Alissa Fishbane

Finally, the book examines how a new understanding of the dynamics of scarcity could change the way we view and do things as a society and as individuals. The book effectively achieves two different goals: On the one hand, it’s a public-policy appeal for programs that better reflect the reality of our reaction to scarcity. On the other, it’s a handy guide for those of us looking to better understand our inability to ever climb out of the holes we dig ourselves, whether related to money, relationships, or time.

One of the important public-policy lessons of “Scarcity” is that tweaks, not massive sea changes, can accomplish a lot. Shafir and Mullainathan cite the example of jobs-training programs geared toward the poor that are often woefully under-attended, leading some to argue that these workers don’t want to better themselves.

There’s a simple fix here, the authors argue: Understand that as low-income people, they’re juggling a variety of different obligations. Don’t build programs so if an attendee misses one class, he is in danger of falling irretrievably behind. Rather, anticipate the challenges and build them into the program’s structure — provide some flexibility for clientele who require it.

Eldar Shafir. Jerry Nelson

“Scarcity” is written for a lay audience, which is a good thing given the importance of the subject matter. But at times the argument would have felt more solid had it explored some of the broader behavioral findings it leans on. It wouldn’t have hurt, for example, for Shafir and Mullainathan to explicitly mention the fundamental attribution error, an accepted theory in social psychology which states that we have a tendency to wrongly attribute individuals’ actions to their personalities rather than the situations they find themselves in.


Still “Scarcity” is very much a worthwhile read and could serve as an important weapon in the arsenal of policy makers trying to fight off some of the more aggressive cost-cutting that has reared its head of late. There has been a long-running political debate about the causes of poverty in the United States, and this book could help nudge us toward a more productive conversation.

Jesse Singal is a regular contributor to the Globe. He can be reached at jesse.r.singal