In a paper in April 2010, Harvard behavioral economist Sendhil Mullainathan (for whom, full disclosure, I once worked) and MIT’s Abhijit Banerjee applied this same notion to decisions requiring self-control. If a doughnut costs twenty-five cents, they wrote, then that “$0.25 will be far more costly to someone living on $2 a day than to someone living on $30 a day. In other words, the same self-control problem is more consequential for the poor.” And so, in addition to all the structural barriers that prevent even determined poor people from escaping poverty, there may be another, deeper, and considerably more disturbing barrier: Poverty may reduce free will, making it even harder for the poor to escape their circumstances.
All of this suggests that we need to rethink our approaches to poverty reduction. Many of our current anti-poverty efforts focus on access to health, educational, agricultural, and financial services. Now, it seems, we need to start treating willpower as a scarce and important resource as well.