Your Lying Eyes

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28 September 2013

Low Bandwidth

The latest meme in the rationalizing the low socio-economic status of certain segments of society (SES-cuses, let's call them) is "low bandwidth". The idea is that the poor have so damn much on their minds - just from the stress of being poor - that they make poor decisions as a result. So poverty itself keeps them poor by causing them to do self-destructive things.

Other recent SES-cuses are "stereotype threat", where students perform badly in school pursuant to negative vibes from authority figures who expect them to do badly due to stereotypes; and the bad outcomes that result from the failure of parents to speak enough words to their children in those ever critical years of ages 5 to 7 3 to 5 0 to 2.

But wouldn't this result in a death-spiral of poverty - something we don't see? And is this phenomenon exceptional to our current generation, where class mobility is low, vs. previous generations where mobility was high?

That's hard to believe, given the realities of today. Compare a typical middle-class family to an impoverished one - who has more bandwidth issues on a given day? For both, the day begins with getting the kids off to school. The middle-class mother needs to get the kids dressed - what to wear? "No, I don't like those pants! I wanna wear the Mighty Super Morphing Ranger Power pants!" "No, you're not wearing those to school - those are for play" "Waahhh!" Then breakfast - oh crap, there's no milk. French toast - but we need the bread for lunch. Oh shit, lunch - what do we have? "Can you buy lunch?" "No, the lines are too long!!" "Ok, well it's baloney - tough, that's all we have." Then of course there's soccer practice, car pools to arrange, etc. etc. Sounds like overload to me.

How about the poor family? You get the kids up and dressed - they wear uniforms in the urban school district, so no decisions there - on goes the uniform. How about breakfast? Nothing to worry about there - they get breakfast when they get to school, courtesy of good ol' Uncle Sam. Lunch - ditto. Soccer? What soccer!? Now that's more like it - life is simple - what's the problem?

I'm not entirely unsympathetic to the concern that poor people have bandwidth problems, but I suspect they're more cause than effect when it comes to poverty. When I think of the successful people I know, I'm struck by how many stressful activities they can juggle throughout the day. Meeting with clients, making deals, hiring/firing/disciplining employees, making major purchases, financing initiatives - all deeply agita-inducing actions that must be taken on to have a successful business. Sure, we all have to do these things, but to my observation successful people are able to handle a number of these simultaneously.

But apparently, according to the authors of the study proposing this bandwidth problem, to a poor person just hearing about a hypothetical $1500 auto-repair bill is enough to send them reeling into a low-IQ stupor. The authors seem to feel that being poor causes this inability to handle a lot of stress. My guess is that easily suffering brain overload at the slightest conundrum is one predictor of poverty, while deftly managing multiple dilemmas at once is a predictor of success.


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