What do these things have in common?

1. A time-pressed CEO, faced with a week of triple-booked meetings and urgent decisions to be made.
2. A person on a diet, counting calories.
3. A low-wage North American city-dweller, counting pennies.

According to Dr. Eldar Shafir—a professor of Psychology and Public Affairs at Princeton University, and the co-author of Scarcity: Why Having So Little Means So Much—the answer is simple: They’re all facing some form of scarcity.

“When you’re facing a lack—of time, money, food—you tend to focus obsessively on the object of the scarcity,” says Shafir. “That leaves less mental room for other aspects of your life.”

This drain on what Shafir calls “mental bandwidth” explains why poverty can be so taxing, emotionally and intellectually. But poverty, says Shafir, is even more stressful than many other forms of scarcity, because the stakes are so much higher. “If a middle-class professional makes a bad call at work, they might fail at a particular task or project,” he says. “But if a person living at the precipice of poverty makes a bad decision, the result could be far worse—eviction, for example.”

With over half a million people in Toronto living in poverty, that’s a lot of lost bandwidth. And with the release of Ontario’s new Poverty Reduction Strategy, United Way Toronto and the Wellesley Institute co-hosted a presentation and discussion with Shafir last month to dive into the psychological issues related to poverty.

“There’s lot of data indicating people living in poverty don’t do well with decision-making. So the question is: Are they in poverty because of bad decisions, or are the bad decisions somehow the result of poverty?”

Shafir cites studies indicating that people living on significantly low incomes often perform poorly on intelligence tests, when simultaneously contemplating difficult financial scenarios—but those intelligence deficits disappear when the money concerns are removed. Similar results have been observed in people living with any form of scarcity, including time scarcity, which impairs decision-making in a way that also has a measurable effect on intelligence tests.

Comparing poverty to other, relatable forms of scarcity (like the aforementioned time scarcity of the busy executive) help to create what Shafir calls an “empathy bridge.”

“The behaviour of people living in poverty looks a lot less strange when you consider that any form of scarcity lends itself to making snap decision, often bad decisions,” he says. “Like when we’re juggling a lot of demands on our time.”

No surprise, then that he supports public policy that can help with that everyday juggling, and “simply, provide more bandwidth.”

“I believe in government intervention,” he says, “so in many ways Canadians have it better than Americans….The five year plan Ontario has is a wonderful way to conduct policy and think about these things on a regular basis. Just keeping this in the public discussion—that’s one of the most important things we can do.”

Interested in knowing more? Check out this 2011 TedX presentation by Dr. Shafir: