We’ve blogged before about the limits of willpower, the idea that “willpower itself is inherently limited.” A new essay by Sendhil Mullainathan and Saugato Datta speculates on the role of parents’ willpower limitations, particularly with respect to low-income parents:
Good parenting requires psychic resources. Complex decisions must be made. Sacrifices must be made in the moment. This is hard for anyone, whatever their income: we all have limited reserves of self-control, and attention and other psychic resources. …
Low-income parents, however, also face a tax on their psychic resources. Many things that are trifling and routine to the well-off give sleepless nights to those less fortunate. To take a simple example, everyone may face the same bank overdraft fees – but steering clear of them is pretty easy for the well-off, while for the poor it requires constant attention, steely reserve and enormous amounts of self-control. For the well-off, monthly bills are automatically deducted and there is still some slack left over. For those with less income, finding ways to ensure that rent, utilities and phone bills are paid for out of small, irregular paychecks is an act of complicated financial jugglery.
Mullainathan and Datta point out that their theory has important implications for social policies aimed at improving parenting. Namely, they suggest that programs that further tax a low-income family’s available mental bandwidth are unlikely to be successful. Instead, they suggest programs aimed at addressing the economic instability faced by many low-income families: “stabilize incomes, provide low-income credit alternatives to deal with the ups and downs of life, or ensure stable housing.”