Skip to content
April 26, 2016 / Rebekah Seder, Editor

The big problem of having too little

By Hannah Davis
Philanthropy Fellow at the Washington Regional Association of Grantmakers


Hannah is a Master of Public Management student at University of Maryland focusing on social justice and nonprofit leadership. She is currently serving as a Philanthropy Fellow with the Institute for corporate social responsibility.


I sat in amazement as everyone pulled out their calculators and got to work on a budget equation my professor put on the board. It was the first day of class. I had no idea where to start and math is certainly not one of my strengths. I had felt overwhelmed before I even entered the classroom. With three other graduate school classes, a fellowship, and launching my own venture, I just couldn’t even think about where to begin.

A few days later I emailed my professor telling him I had to drop the course. “I would like to be in a space where I can fully take the time to understand what’s being taught,” I said to him. I’m sure he laughed when he saw the email, but I was serious. My mental bandwidth was at its max.

In their book Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much, Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir –the next speaker in WRAG’s Brightest Minds series – explain that scarcity captures our attention and “impedes our ability to focus on other things.” This idea of “less mind” is captured by Mullainathan and Shafir with the umbrella term “bandwidth,” which they define as our capacity and ability to pay attention, make good decisions, stick with our plans, and resist temptations. Bandwidth isn’t about intelligence; it’s about scarcity.

Scarcity is having less than you feel you need. Whether it’s time, money, or even the willpower to resist that piece of cake, scarcity directly impacts your mental bandwidth. By focusing on one thing, what is it you’re not focusing on?

Being poor is hard. As a social worker, I have seen firsthand parents juggling two or three jobs and struggling to make ends meet every month. We sign people up for GED classes and job training programs thinking if we just give them the educational skills they’re missing we’ll be able to decrease our TANF and SNAP rolls. Unfortunately, this is not the case.

The authors explain that education comes with a price tag for the poor. For example, spending 8 hours in class causes a person to miss out on a day’s worth of pay, making it that much harder to pay rent. Imagine trying to focus in class if you’re wondering how you’re going to make up those work hours. Your attendance in that class is in vain and the cycle – what the authors call the “scarcity trap” — begins again.

These mini-fires happen every day for families in poverty and much of their mental bandwidth goes to constantly putting out these fires. I’m looking forward to Eldar Shafir’s Brightest Minds talk on May 18 and hearing how we can look at poverty through a scarcity lens. All aspects of a person’s life, behavior, and actions are linked and we need to begin connecting them to create policies and programs that truly make a difference for those we serve.

For me, Scarcity has been life-changing. It led me to my second Master’s in Public Management and has re-shaped my social work practice. Incorporating the psychology of scarcity into our work will only lead to better solutions for everyone.


Join us to hear from Scarcity co-author Eldar Shafir, Professor of Psychology and Public Affairs at Princeton University, on May 18 at the Meyer Foundation. This event is open to the public. Click here for more details.

%d bloggers like this: