missional musings, meanderings, and miscellaneity

of the Tuggy family, helping make disciples of African nations from our little perch in Uganda

For the poor, solving problems today crowds out planning for tomorrow

The present looms larger for the poor.

When you have enough money in the bank to buy your food for the day, you can plan for what you will eat tomorrow.  When you don’t have food for your next meal, you don’t have the time or mental energy to plan for tomorrow’s meals – you are too worried about your growling stomach!

This is the gist of an interesting theory advanced by this study (the study itself is gated, but hat tip to Alex Tabarrok and his review at Marginal Revolution).

Let me explain that first statement a bit.

This much is pretty obvious.  But this also helps explain why the poor often make poor choices.  In poor communities and households around the world, people over the centuries have observed that the poor have a tendency to make choices about tomorrow – choices about the future – that end up perpetuating their poverty.

For example, the poor spend more money, relative to their income, on lottery tickets than do the rich.  The poor tend to borrow too much money, and to do so at exorbitant interest rates that inevitably come back to haunt them.  These examples are often true of poor people no matter where they live, be that in Columbia or the District of Columbia.

Why?  The answer is complex, and I believe that it goes all the way down to the deceptions and the distorted values and beliefs that hold sway in families, communities, and cultures.  Poverty may also be perpetuated, in part, by how the pressures of the present loom larger than the future consequences of one’s choices.

When you don’t know where you next meal is coming from, you can’t think of much else.  This real-but-short-term problem of your next meal demands all your attention, and as a consequence you lack the time and mental energy to confront more important but less immediate consequences, such as what will happen when you use the last of your money to buy food, rather than to buy seeds to plant for next year’s harvest.

Now we could (rightly) say “If you are going to starve, than of course you are not going to invest in next year’s harvest!”    True enough!  But the choices facing the poor are often less dramatic than that example above.  Yet whatever their present problem may be – money for their next tank of gas or an unexpected hospital bill – those problems loom larger and require their full attention in ways that those of us who have health insurance and who forget to even look at the price of gas when we fill our tank (which, not coincidentally, is more likely to be for a newer gas-sipping car, whereas the poor are more likely to drive an older gas-guzzler).

We all have limits as to how much we can take on at one time.  With the urgent challenges the poor confront every day, it is not surprising that the important problems of tomorrow always stay on the back burner.

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