Home > economics > “Hand To Mouth” and the rationality of the poor

“Hand To Mouth” and the rationality of the poor

November 3, 2014

Here’s one thing that you do as a mathematician a lot: change the assumptions and see how wildly the conclusions change. You usually start with lots of assumptions, and then see how things change when they are taken away one by one: what if the ring isn’t commutative? What if it doesn’t have a “1”?

Of course, it’s easy enough to believe that we can no longer prove the same theorems when we don’t start with the same kinds of mathematical set-ups. But this kind of thing can also apply to non-mathematical scenarios as well.

So, for example, I’ve long thought that the “marshmallow” experiment is nearly universally misunderstood: kids wait for the marshmallow for exactly as long as it makes sense to them to wait. If they’ve been brought up in an environment where delayed gratification pays off, and where the rules don’t change in the meantime, and where they trust a complete stranger to tell them the truth, they wait, and otherwise they don’t – why would they? But since the researchers grew up in places where it made sense to go to grad school, and where they respect authority and authority is watching out for them, and where the rules once explained didn’t change, they never think about those assumptions. They just conclude that these kids have no will power.

Similarly, this GoodBooksRadio interview with Linda Tirado is excellent in explaining the rational behavior of poor people:

Tirado just came out with a book called Hand To Mouth: Living in Bootstrap America and was discussing it with Dr. John Cook, who was a fantastic interviewer. You might have come across Tirado’s writing – her essay on poverty that went viral, or the backlash against that essay. She’s clearly a tough cookie, a great writer, and an articulate speaker.

Among the things she explains is why poor people eat McDonalds food (it’s fast, cheap, and filling), why they don’t get much stuff done (their lives are filled with logistics), why they make bad decisions (stress), and, what’s possibly the most important, how much harder work it is to be poor than it is to be rich. She defines someone as “rich” if they don’t lease their furniture.

I’m looking forward to reading her book. As the Financial Times review says, “Hand to Mouth – written with scorching flair – should be read by every person lucky enough to have a disposable income.”

Categories: economics
  1. Cauchy
    November 3, 2014 at 8:14 am

    Was good interview. Looking forward to reading her book.


  2. Cucumber Monkey
    November 3, 2014 at 8:23 am

    A 2012 study from the University of Rochester agrees with your intuition on the marshmallow test:



  3. revuluri
    November 3, 2014 at 9:22 am

    This “rational response” has actually been tested: “So she designed a clever new version of the marshmallow experiment and got some astonishing results. If you manipulate a child’s trust in the adult, you radically change his performance on the marshmallow test.” While the paper was published in an academic journal (Cognition) this quote is from BabyCenter (http://blogs.babycenter.com/mom_stories/self-control-kids-fail-the-marshmallow-test-when-adults-are-unreliable/) and I’m pretty sure I read about It into places before that, so I think it’s pretty widely reported. (Though likely not nearly as much as the original marshmallow test.)

    I think that the interesting question is about how each behavior becomes habitual rather than rational, and when each is adaptive or maladaptive. The challenge is when you go from one situation to the other and your usual response is not the best.


    • revuluri
      November 3, 2014 at 9:24 am

      Also, on this general topic, I would strongly recommend the recent book “Scarcity”. Very well-written, mixing theory, methodology, and concrete stories, and very thought-provoking.


    • November 3, 2014 at 9:44 am

      Yes I have seen that study. It is certainly in the direction I am talking about. Thanks!


  4. lace
    November 3, 2014 at 10:14 am

    Great piece, thanks!


  5. Guest2
    November 3, 2014 at 11:24 am

    No one seems to be commenting on the “culture of poverty,” much less its cognitive side (think: bounded rationality), which Tirado is well aware of.



    • Min
      November 3, 2014 at 3:38 pm

      Bounded rationality is the human condition. It is not peculiar to poverty.


      • Guest2
        November 3, 2014 at 9:50 pm

        Point here is the “bounded rationality” of the super-rich, rich, middle-class, working class and poor differs. Marx made this famous in The German Ideology.


        • Min
          November 4, 2014 at 2:12 pm

          Their “bounded rationality” may differ, but in neither its rationality nor its boundedness.


  6. November 3, 2014 at 3:00 pm

    Have you read Karelis’s The Persistence of Poverty? Absolutely nails this subject.


  7. Min
    November 3, 2014 at 3:37 pm

    Often human behavior that is an adaptation to circumstances serves to perpetuate or to bring about those circumstances. An example is the present time orientation of the “culture of poverty”. When the future is uncertain, a present time orientation is adaptive. But, once it is learned or becomes habitual, a present time orientation can prevent people from taking advantage of opportunities to get out of poverty in the not too distant future.

    Another example is not voting because it makes no difference and things are hopeless anyway. The plutocrats rule, so why bother? So that some day they will not rule. A certain amount of maladaptive behavior is necessary. 🙂


    • Agorabum
      November 4, 2014 at 1:12 pm

      Coates in the Atlantic had a lot about this a few years back. How the social mores of his poor Baltimore neighborhood, as a teen, made perfect sense in their locale, but when applied to…say the New York publishing world, they were counterproductive. The problem with trying to teach the ‘proper’ (generally – middle class) response to a set of situations is that they fail miserably in a rough, poverty environment. Children taught those responses see them fail when practiced, and so would rationally discard them.


    • Jonathan
      November 4, 2014 at 7:24 pm

      [quote]Another example is not voting because it makes no difference and things are hopeless anyway. The plutocrats rule, so why bother? So that some day they will not rule. A certain amount of maladaptive behavior is necessary.[/quote]

      “So that some day they will not rule.” Here you miss the whole plot. In a system that has evolved to manage and maintain the system of plutocrat rule at every level and scale, voting doesn’t actually change any relevant outcomes unless plutocrats want them too (Gilens and Page 2014). So, if you think that ratifying such a system is rational, you might not be seeing the limits in outcomes that are intrinsic to that context, OR you approve of them.

      In which case, of one wants that someday they shall not rule, it is far more adaptive to stay home, not ratify the system that has been carefully tuned to only produce adverse outcomes for you, and to pointedly, stridently and unapologetically dress down those who choose to sell the refusal to comply with inverted totalitarianism as apathy and not resistance. Which means you.


      • Min
        November 5, 2014 at 11:40 am

        Oh, I used to believe that. As the bumper stickers say, “Don’t blame me. I didn’t vote,” and “I never vote. It just encourages the bastards.” It doesn’t work.

        As for the current elections, the plutocrats are surely happy about the Republican majority in the Senate. But they are surely not happy about the increases to the minimum wage.


        • Bobito
          November 6, 2014 at 3:18 am

          In the US there are generally only two candidates on the ballot, from what seem to me essentially similar parties. In my entire life the Congressman from my district (I have lived in several) has never faced a viable opponent (on those rare occasions when he was not unopposed) and has usually polled more than 75% of the vote. Tuesday there were Senate and Governor elections in a state and the three nonincumbent candidates were the daughter of a former senator, the brother of a former governor, and the grandson of a former governor/president.

          I stopped voting. It’s a waste of my time.


  8. Min
    November 3, 2014 at 3:52 pm

    Considering the cognitive effects of a safe, stable environment, things such as a guaranteed basic income and/or a job guarantee could help bring that about. The income floor could probably be below the poverty level and still be enough to bring an end to the “culture of poverty”. 🙂


    • Guest2
      November 6, 2014 at 10:31 am

      This is the immediate reason for suburbia. Stability, safety, better educational opportunities than inner city ghetto. Stress studies on cortisols bathing the brain of kids show the production of negative cognitive effects in poverty, so they are already starting out behind.

      But owning your own home in suburbia, having to drive to work and the store — all this costs money. And the social dynamics of stratification set up strata with cognitive aspects, to say nothing of those in the top half fighting to maintain their privileges and advantages.

      My thought, and my observation is that we are all slipping into the cognitive world of poverty, generation by generation. As Payne shows, it only takes 3 generations to lose everything that the first generation achieved. And it rarely comes back.


  9. CG
    November 3, 2014 at 5:04 pm

    I can imagine the same experiment carried out with different personalities interacting with the children; scripted or not I would expect some difference in the results. The challenge itself appears strange enough to cause suspicion for some. Wait for more marshmallow because one wants to talk more with the experimenter and want them to like one, or eat now because one doesn’t?


    • Min
      November 4, 2014 at 2:15 pm

      Yes, it has long been known that the results of cognitive tests upon children depend in part upon the tester.


      • Guest2
        November 6, 2014 at 10:34 am

        And the test creators are white, middle class. Gramski’s proletariat intellectuals never made it into academia (at least not in the US).


      • Guest2
        November 6, 2014 at 10:39 am

        The place to start with this is the sociology of knowledge, and the early role that Karl Marx played. In the 1920s, Karl Mannheim noticed that what people knew and believed was geographically and generationally based. This gave social constructivism its start, along with Weber, Schutz, etc., and the role that institutionalization plays in what is real and what is unreal.


  10. November 4, 2014 at 1:40 pm

    Charles Karelis’ The Persistence of Poverty: Why the Economics of the Well-Off Can’t Help the Poor offers some thought-provoking insights.



  11. November 7, 2014 at 2:57 pm

    Some pushback on the marshmallows: You seem to have made some contra-factual assumptions about both the researchers and the sample groups. Your critique is addressed in an interview Walter Mischel gave The Atlantic during his recent book-flogging tour. In particular, he points out that prior to conducting the initial study, Mischel had been researching the role of trust in decision-making. He also has this to say:

    “To me, the real problem was that we were dealing with an incredibly homogenous sample, either children of Stanford faculty or Stanford graduate students—and we still saw strong correlation. But it was an unbelievably elitist subset of the human race, which was one of the concerns that motivated me to study children in the South Bronx—kids in high-stress, poverty conditions—and yet we saw many of the same phenomena as the marshmallow studies were revealing.”

    This would seem to preclude a classist interpretation of his findings.

    I actually shared most of these assumptions until hearing Mischel interviewed on a BBC podcast about a week ago. I think these misunderstandings arise from a serious and growing problem: the disconnect between scientific literature (the best of which is full of subtlety) and science journalism (the best of which is full of accessible analogies). In other news, space-time is not like a rubber sheet, entropy is not like a teenager’s dirty room, and irreducible complexity is not random. Unfortunately, the true nature of these concepts is inaccessible to most of us, because it’s made of math. Worse, that math is usually behind a pay-wall. Worsity-worse, the people charged with making sense of the flood of scientific publications have to do so under enormous time pressure, in the face of blogospheric levels of competition.

    P.S. Speaking of podcasts, if you hoped your gig on Slate Money would drive traffic to this site, congratulations: It’s working. 🙂



    • November 7, 2014 at 3:17 pm

      First, “worsity-worse” is a great word. Second, I’m glad to hear about the interview, but I haven’t seen that described in studies yet – I will look out for it, thanks! Third, welcome!


  12. November 15, 2014 at 8:45 pm

    Reblogged this on Coles County Poverty Data Project.


  1. November 4, 2014 at 6:59 am
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