How do you save for the future when your kids are barely getting enough to eat, let alone the other things they need?:
Poor People Don't Have Less Self-Control. Poverty Forces Them to Think Short-Term, by Elliot Berkman, New Republic: When considering poverty, our national conversation tends to overlook systemic causes. Instead, we often blame the poor for their poverty. Commentators echo the claim that people are poor because they have bad self-control and therefore make nearsighted choices. But psychology research says the opposite might be the case: poverty makes it hard for people to care about the future and forces them to live in the present.
As a researcher who studies goals and motivation, I wanted to know how self-control works and if science can help us get better at it. Poverty seemed like a good place to start, because greater self-control could be especially helpful there. In fact, the federal Administration for Children and Families is adding character-skills training to its programs in efforts to improve self-control among children.
But as I started this work I was surprised by all the reasons that it’s so hard for people in poverty to have good self-control. In fact, I started to question whether the usual definition of self-control–choosing long-term over short-term outcomes–even makes sense for people who are short on time, money, or both.
The very definition of self-control is choosing behaviors that favor long-term outcomes over short-term rewards, but poverty can force people to live in a permanent now. Worrying about tomorrow can be a luxury if you don’t know how you’ll survive today.
Research supports this idea by showing that poor people understandably have an increased focus on the present. People who are among the poorest one-fifth of Americans tend to spend their money on immediate needs such as food, utilities and housing, all of which have gotten more expensive. In this situation, the traditional definition of self-control doesn’t make a lot of sense. ...
This research makes me rethink both poverty and self-control. The science suggests that poverty has powerful harmful effects on people, and helps explain why it’s so hard to escape. Their choices are much more a product of their situation, rather than a lack of self-control.
The way we scientists define self-control is part of the problem, too. We tend to think that focusing on long-term goals is always a good thing and satisfying short-term needs is always a bad thing; we say that “self-control failure” is equivalent to focusing on the near term. This definition works well for people who have the luxury of time and money to meet their basic needs and have resources left over to plan for the future. But self-control as currently defined might not even apply to people living in the permanent now.