From the Part to the Whole

In their fascinating new book Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much, Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir describe an experiment that brought together those with very high and very low incomes. First, the participants were asked to imagine paying for a $300 car repair. Soon after, they were given an IQ test. The scores among high and low income groups came out roughly the same when the averages were calculated. Next, the group had to imagine paying for a $3,000 car repair. When the IQ tests were taken again, the low income group scored up to ten points lower than they had before.

When faced with that $3,000 bill, the low income group could not imagine how to secure the funds, Even this hypothetical scenario of scarcity impacted their ability to perform on the test as they had before. Researchers have discovered that even the feeling of scarcity actually changes the manner in which the brain functions and lowers the person’s capacity to perform in the ways they are capable. This creates a cycle of poor achievement and continuing crises. Scarcity also cuts across all cultures; sugar cane farmers in India score much better on IQ tests after a harvest when they know the crop will take care of the needs of their families.

Now let us turn our attention to education. We have heard for years that we need new tests, new curriculum, new schools, and a host of other programs to solve our education problems. But too often education is viewed in isolation from other issues confronting students. And clearly one of those issues is scarcity. When students are worried about their next meal, their housing situation, and other basic necessities, they literally cannot perform up to their abilities. So what often gets labeled an academic issue in reality is a challenge outside the school environment.

If we want to affect change in our communities, we will have to start looking at the entire person rather than dividing him into individual pieces and pretending one situation does not impact another. At the practical level, this means more collaboration between agencies and services working to lift others out of cycles of poverty, abuse, isolation, and other challenges. It will mean understanding that one policy change,say in the ways we help people secure food, sets off a change reaction of other consequences. For instance, the Gates Foundation discovered that offering housing subsidies of $6,000 a year to keep families together saves $34,000 a year in foster care costs when children are removed from homeless situations. This in turn improves their academic performance which heightens their ability to move up the economic labor, lowering their need for services later in life.

Too often we fear complexity; we choose the easy answer instead of the best answer. We cling to our favorite cause or solution without considering the entire situation or turning to others for a more complete approach. The lack of collaboration and vision to address the whole instead of the part is a scarcity we cannot continue to tolerate.

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