Today was fine and warm, and this afternoon, I biked to the Winthrop Food Pantry to take people around as they chose the food from what we have to offer. The selection can vary, but we usually have cereal, pancake mix, pasta, macaroni and cheese, tuna fish, peanut butter, eggs, some meat, and canned soups and vegetables. Depending on what’s available at the Good Shepherd Food Bank, we also have fresh vegetables and fruit. People leave with their boxes overflowing with food, and for a few days, at least, their cupboards will be full. There will be no scarcity of food.
How appropriate, then, that this morning I should read Cass R. Sunstein’s excellent essay in the New York Review of Books about the effect that scarcity has on people, how it alters the way they think and how they plan. In his piece, Sunstein reviews Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much by Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir.
In Scarcity, the authors contend that having too little—money, food, time, companionship—concentrates the mind in ways that might be good for the short term—surviving from day to day or accomplishing a certain task—but is not good for the long term. The narrow focus that scarcity fosters is bad in all kinds of ways, from planning ahead to self-control to solving problems.
Sunstein writes, “[The authors’] striking claim, based on careful empirical research, is that across all of those categories, the feeling of scarcity has quite similar effects. It puts people in a kind of cognitive tunnel, limiting what they are able to see. It depletes their self-control. It makes them more impulsive and sometimes a bit dumb…”
As Anne of Green Gables might have put it, when there is scarcity, there isn’t much scope for the imagination. The irony, of course, is that when resources are scarce, imagination and creativity are exactly what you need. But it’s very difficult to be creative and imaginative when you are wondering how in the world you are going to pay the bills and have enough left over for food.
When I tell people I volunteer at the food pantry, I sometimes get the following questions: Why don’t food pantry recipients budget better? Why do so many of them smoke? Why don’t they get a better job? Why do their families allow them to come to the pantry? In my more uncharitable moments, I sometimes wonder the same things.
But then I look at the worn, tired faces of the people who come in. Scarcity has taken its toll, and it shows in the way they move as well as on their faces. Many of the recipients look older than they are, worn done by years of worrying about money, among other things. A bit ashamed of myself, I remember my own family’s years of just getting by and how hard it was.
So here is my answer: Considering their circumstances—old age, disability, low-paying jobs—food pantry recipients are doing the best they can with what they have. And if they didn’t live with such scarcity, they would do a lot better.