This Is Your Stressed-Out Brain On Scarcity : Shots - Health News When we don't have enough of something — love, time or money — we spend extraordinary effort worrying about how to get by, research shows. The stress of poverty changes the way people think.

This Is Your Stressed-Out Brain On Scarcity

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.


And I'm Audie Cornish. The stress of being poor is part of what traps people in poverty. That idea came across in a new poll by NPR, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Harvard School of Public Health. It's part of our series Stressed Out. We've been looking into stress, including the connection between stress and finances. And not surprisingly for people making under $20,000 a year, the top source of stress was money. NPR's Laura Starecheski reports on how that stressor can lead to what one expert calls bandwidth poverty.

LAURA STARECHESKI, BYLINE: To be honest when I first read the poll results, I thought there was no way there'd be an aha moment in this story. People who don't make enough money to get by are stressed about money. It's kind of a no-brainer. Then I met Lauren Boria, a redhead in her early 30s. Lauren's a single mom from the Bronx. And I realized right away that her situation goes way beyond your run-of-the-mill stress. Lauren is always doing a mental tally. How much money does she have today, right now?

LAUREN BORIA: I have like, I think, $320 in my checking account right now. That's not $3,000 - that's $320. And I have a $300 check that I'm going to deposit and then I have to write a $600 money order. (Laughing) So what does that leave me with? I think $20.

STARECHESKI: Not a lot of slack there. And that's why money worries seem to rule Lauren's brain. She constantly throws out dollar amounts - $2 for an ice cream cone for her daughter, $7 just to park at the beach. All think she can't really afford. Lauren wants desperately to have a stable job and her own place. She's living with her mom right now. And she's actually on the verge of succeeding. In fact, after about a year and a half out of work, she just found a job this spring. This is the kitchen at the City Island Yacht Club in the Bronx. It's a private club and marina with its own restaurant.

BORIA: So for that table, we have menus.

STARECHESKI: Lauren is a waitress here. She's bringing in about $300 a week. This is her first waitressing job, so there's a lot to learn.

BORIA: I would bring in an order for steak and they're like how do they want it? And I'm like, I'll be right back, 'cause I don't really eat steak. (Laughing) That's also a challenge.

STARECHESKI: Right now, she's getting ready for the dinner rush. When the restaurant opens in a few minutes, club members will come in hungry after sailing their boats around the Long Island Sound. She wants everything to be perfect for them.

BORIA: A candle in the bathroom - I always forget to light the candle in the bathroom.

STARECHESKI: She's always forgetting something, so here at work, like in every other part of her life, she has a list - to-do lists, reading lists - she's been chipping away at a bachelor's degree for years - grocery lists. This list is written on a piece of neon green paper that's taped up behind the bar.

BORIA: Wraps, water, cups, menus, salt, pepper, ketchup, mayo, steak knives candles and solars.

STARECHESKI: As I watch Lauren run around the restaurant stressed out and in constant fear of forgetting something, I imagined her head filled to the brim with dollar signs. There wasn't room for anything else. Then I remembered something that she said to me earlier. If I'm going to get through today, I can't afford to think about tomorrow.

ELDAR SHAFIR: This is persistent. You don't take a vacation from poverty. It's day-in, day-out.

STARECHESKI: That's psychologist Eldar Shafir of Princeton University. He studies the brain on scarcity. He told me that people like Lauren get stuck in a poverty trap. We've all heard that term. Once you're in the hole, it's hard to climb out of it. But what he's talking about is a different kind of poverty trap. It's a psychological one. Shafir says that, in the moment, worrying about money can be good. That's what allows people like Lauren to come up with crafty ways to stretch their limited resources- something people in poverty are really good at. But that takes constant mental attention, using up a finite cognitive resource.

SHAFIR: You're focused on juggling, you know, keeping the balls in the air this week and that just leaves less mind for other things.

STARECHESKI: And it changes the way people make decisions.

SHAFIR: And then you start doing things that you wish you hadn't done. You don't quite remember to do things in time. You don't anticipate things that are going to happen tomorrow.

STARECHESKI: Shafir calls this problem bandwidth poverty. When you're bandwidth poor, you're thinking about how to pay for food and make rent today. And it's almost impossible to think about the future. When I spent time with Lauren, I started seeing bandwidth poverty in action.

FALLON: Oh, look. We're here.

BORIA: Yep, we're here.

STARECHESKI: It's hard for Lauren to afford childcare. So the day I met with her, so she could expand her financial situation, her 4-year-old daughter, Fallon, came along.

BORIA: I think you're being like ultra silly today.

FALLON: I am busted.

STARECHESKI: I asked Lauren to bring any paperwork she could get together that would help me understand what was going on.

BORIA: You wanted to see my papers so I brought them.

STARECHESKI: Two suitcases worth and that wasn't even everything. We talking the back office of the Throggs Neck Volunteer Ambulance Corps, where Lauren and her boyfriend, Tommy, volunteer. They're both licensed EMTs. She does dispatch. If she could work regular daytime shifts, she'd want to make this her job. But late-night EMT hours are tough with a 4-year-old.

BORIA: Go put your shoes on.

FALLON: (Imitates kissing).

BORIA: I love you, too.

STARECHESKI: Lauren does her best to shield Fallon from the stress of their financial situation. She tries to not even say the word money in front of her. So Tommy watched Fallon in another room while we talked.

FALLON: I want to go and color something.


STARECHESKI: As soon as Fallon closed the door, Lauren cracked open one suitcase full of documents.

BORIA: Yeah, let's see. I have Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. This is the food assistance I was getting.

STARECHESKI: So most of these papers have to do with a decision Lauren made about a year ago - a decision she thought would help her and Fallon. But it was a decision she made with limited bandwidth. What basically happened was that Lauren lost her last job. She got sick and they fired her while she was on leave. And then she just couldn't find work. She had to dip into savings - months went by. Eventually, she got desperate.

BORIA: When everything ran out, I started selling jewelry. I sold all my good stuff, which I didn't get much for.

STARECHESKI: Before she knew it, Lauren was broke and bandwidth poverty kicked in. She was so stressed, she didn't have the thinking time she needed to research the different choices. Her mom said, look into unemployment. Someone else said, look into welfare. Lauren was in a state of emergency.

BORIA: So I applied for cash assistance because I thought that was for what it was - like, you know, if you're really need then they're there to help you temporarily or whatever.

STARECHESKI: On cash assistance - that's what most people call welfare - Lauren got $145 twice a month, which she absolutely needed to keep food on the table. But what she didn't anticipate was that those checks came with a whole new list of responsibilities. The big requirement was that Lauren had to show up for what's called a work preparedness program every day from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. for three months.

BORIA: It's like a job, except you get no money for it. You have to go there, ready for an interview every day.

STARECHESKI: But Lauren says there never were any actual job interviews. In fact, the scarcity psychologist, Dr. Shafir, told me that programs like work preparedness are intentionally complicated and demanding to make sure that only the most driven and needy people will jump through the hoops to get their benefits. The idea behind that is that people who just want an easy check get weeded out. But the actual effect on people like Lauren, who are driven and needy, is what Shafir calls a cognitive tax - taxing their limited bandwidth and adding even more stress.

BORIA: You know, and I was nervous about not going because now I'm, like, only get this $145 twice a month and I really need it, you know, like, we have a lot of necessities. I mean, we can survive one bare necessities, but even that you still need some kind of income for, you know.

STARECHESKI: Just commuting back and forth to the program cut into the money Lauren was getting

BORIA: I wound up spending money I didn't have on, like, rides and cabs and asking friends to take me.

STARECHESKI: And the time that it took up meant that other plans she had to try to make her situation better had to be sidelined, plans like finishing her bachelor's degree.

BORIA: I actually wound up doing really poorly in my physics class. And I just started getting all types of anxiety.

STARECHESKI: Lauren eventually dropped out of the program, but her time on cash assistance left a big footprint in her life. One day, just a few months ago, she was talking to a pro bono lawyer about something different - Fallon's father had reappeared and was trying to get custody. And just before she left the appointment, she remembered a weird letter she'd gotten in the mail.

BORIA: And then I was like, well, while I'm here, I got this paper. And they were like, oh, my God, you can go to jail for that.

STARECHESKI: The letter basically says that Lauren hadn't reported some unemployment benefits she'd gotten while she was on cash assistance and accused her of concealing funds. The funds in question are a little over a thousand dollars.

BORIA: And I'm like, oh, my God, they have no idea how much stress a person is under. There's so many things happening, I can't keep track of it, I just can't.

STARECHESKI: Thinking back on it now, Laura feels like if she'd just had a chance to read the fine print, to learn about all the options and what they'd lead to, she would've done things differently. She says that going on welfare was the worst decision of her life. Lauren gets migraines, the more stressed she is, the worst they get. Some are so bad she has to go to the ER because of the pain. And I would've thought that having Fallon, the added responsibility and complications of raising a kid on too little money, would have made things much harder. But Lauren says it's Fallon who got her through the stress of the past year.

BORIA: It's one thing to sit there all day and sulk and be depressed and be cranky and not go out, and it's another to be really stressed out but still take her out and show her that no matter what you're feeling you still have things to do. And it's actually good to have someone like Fallon because she's a motivator. Having a child made me stronger.

FALLON: Come in, come in.

BORIA: It's cold. It's actually not too cold. (Laughing) It's not bad.

STARECHESKI: When she can steal some time away from all her responsibilities, Laura likes to take Fallon to Orchard Beach in the Bronx.

BORIA: What kind of castle do you want?

FALLON: A princess in it.

BORIA: A princess inside?

STARECHESKI: Time like this with Fallon is the opposite of a cognitive tax, it's what Dr. Shafir calls a cognitive gift.

BORIA: All right, Fallon, first we need a moat. It's like a circle, right. And you make it deep like this, with your hand.

STARECHESKI: That day at the beach, Lauren had just gotten some great news - she and her boyfriend Tommy had applied for an apartment together and they got it. They plan to move in July 1. The waitressing job, her own place. That's two rungs higher on the ladder as Lauren climbs towards her goal - a stable, peaceful life with Fallon. But just thinking about the new apartment got her worrying and adding up numbers again.

BORIA: And it's, you know, I'm scared about this place, but if I make $300 a week and at the end of the month I make $1,200, I have exactly what I have to give for rent. I don't know how I'll do everything, like if Tommy should get sick or whatever, which I'm not, you know, I don't expect anything to happen, but should it happen I know I can still pay the rent somehow.

STARECHESKI: What do you tend to - when you're, like, watching her in the water, what kind of stuff is going through your mind?

BORIA: I really try not to let anything else go through my mind except what she's doing because, you know, there's a lot of stress in my life and stuff, but at the same time, I have my daughter, she's healthy, we have a roof over our head, I have enough food, she's got clothes, we're at the beach, you know. So those are a lot of things a lot of people can't say, so when I'm with her, I just - you know, I'm with her.

STARECHESKI: Lauren watched Fallon play at the edge of the water. She looked relax for a minute.

BORIA: I hope she's always like that - happy.

STARECHESKI: This is the good kind of being stuck in a moment. Laura Starecheski, NPR News


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