Book Review – Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much

I have a confession. I have a high school diploma, an associate’s degree in general education, a bachelor’s degree in history, and a master’s degree in public history. I’m not uneducated by any stretch. But I’ve never taken an economics course. Never. Not micro, not macro, not even a 101 intro class. It’s a hole in my learning, for sure.

Recently I downloaded the audiobook Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much by Sendhil Mullainathan, and Eldar Shafir. I was expecting a social justice book. What I got was a mixture of economics, psychology, sociology, social justice, and more. Sendhil Mullainathan is a behavioral economist, and Eldar Shafir is a psychologist. The book reads like an academic paper in some regards, but manages to be approachable at the same time. Like I said, I don’t have any background in economics. Yet I found their thesis fascinating.

The main argument of this book is that scarcity, defined as not having enough (be it time, money, food, companionship, or really any basic need), causes people to “tunnel” or focus in on what they lack. This is a good thing in the short-term. We’ve all experienced how productive we can be with a deadline approaching, or how thoughtfully we spend our money when our account balance gets low. But long-term scarcity has negative consequences.

People experiencing long-term scarcity loose sight of things that are approaching. They’re so focused on their immediate need that they can’t see the big picture. They put off things that may be more important, but which are less pressing. They don’t invest in the things they should. They take on future commitments that they’ll regret, like bad loans for the money-scarce, and future projects for the time-scarce. These commitments, in turn, lead to more problems in the future and result in falling further and further behind.

What I enjoyed about this book was the way it considered the psychology of human behavior. Mullainathan and Shafir explain that within the tunnel, when we’re so focused on our immediate problems, we actually lose some of our cognitive ability, or bandwidth. This is why stressed-out parents are impatient with their kids, and why drivers on the phone get in more accidents. Your mind can’t be divided without losing processing skills.

Okay, so we all know that being too busy, multi-tasking, or being stressed out make it hard to focus, but for people living in poverty, this is a constant problem. Their minds are always divided between the tasks at hand and the worry in the back of their minds about how they are going to make ends meet, put food on the table, etc. It’s like trying to live your life while on a constant phone conversation at the same time. People living in chronic scarcity constantly struggle to see the big picture and juggle everything on their minds.

The last part of the book talks about how we can avoid falling into scarcity traps by creating margin in our lives. Margin helps us handle the kind of every day shocks that can drop us into seasons of scarcity. But even more than that, the closing section suggests ways that aid programs, policymakers, and others can work within or around peoples’ scarcity tunnels and lack of bandwidth to make more of an impact on their lives. I love this because they don’t just suggest throwing more money at problems, but in helping aid dollars go further and helping people get out of the downward spiral of scarcity.

If you work in social services, policymaking, or the non-profit sector, I highly encourage you to read this book. It will help you to understand what scarcity does to the human brain, and how to work with those challenges to build better programs and services.

February Triple Challenge

A new month is upon us (finally? already? It feels like it’s been January forever, but I’m still writing the date wrong…). It’s time to update you on my One Thousand Things challenge and let you know what I’m up to in February.

As you may remember, my challenge for January was to sell, toss, or donate (appropriately) one thousand physical things (not including actual trash). I’ve done a hundred things in a weekend before, and I wanted to really challenge myself. I went through my wardrobe on a snow day. I finally cleaned out the medicine cabinet. I went through a lot of stuff, and I’m still only at 250ish. On the downside, I started my “Year of Challenge” with a fail. On the upside, I really got into the spirit of this challenge. What’s not reflected in that 250 is that I also cleaned out digital clutter from my inbox and phone. I unsubscribed from a number of things. I finished books I’d been picking at. I didn’t hit my goal, but I did buy in to the purge mentality. So I’ve decided to keep that challenge going through February. I haven’t even touched the crawl space, and I have some things laying around that I’ve been meaning to sell online. There’s clutter in my garage and shed, too, but those will have to wait until all this snow melts…

In addition to continuing my quest for one thousand things, I have taken on a triple challenge for February. A group of my friends has decided to listen to Transformation Church’s Crazy Faith sermon series. There are twenty-one sermons in the series, each about an hour long. My goal is to finish watching/listening to the entire run by the end of the month. I’ve only listened to the first two so far, but I’m loving them already.

My second February challenge came out of one of the sermons I already listened to. In part two, “Baby Faith,” Michael Todd challenges his listeners to spend fifteen minutes a day reading the Bible. I’m ashamed to say that this is something I’m not very good at. I mean, I’ve read the whole Bible, but actually sitting down every. single. day in an intentional time of study is something I’ve gotten away from. During the month of February I will spend fifteen minutes a day, distraction-free, reading the Bible.

My third February challenge isn’t spiritual or physical, it’s environmental and intentional. During the month of February I will not use a single plastic shopping bag. Remember years ago there used to be an ad campaign that said Plastic Makes it Possible? I remember being excited about things packaged in plastic instead of glass. Plastic seals tight, and it doesn’t break (at least not easily). Plastic seemed like a perfect solution. But as time has passed we’re learning more and more about the recycleability (or lack thereof) of plastics, the garbage floating in our oceans, and the harmful chemicals given off by plastics.

This is one of those times in life when I start to feel guilty for the years of waste I’ve contributed. But as I’m always telling my readers, guilt doesn’t help. When you know better, do better. So I’m trying to do better. I switched to bamboo toothbrushes. I bought reusable baggies for storing dry items. I recycle plastics that I can. But there’s still a lot more I could be doing.

The biggest things that get in my way are unpreparedness and laziness. If I stop at the convenience store, or Target (Hello? Target? Why do you only offer plastic bags??), and I don’t have reusable bags with me, plastic is my only option. So for the month of February, I am committing to using no new plastic shopping bags. If I have old bags, I can reuse those or recycle them at a designated facility (you can’t toss them in your bin). I’ll dig out my reusable bags from the garage, clean them up (winter in Minnesota…), and keep them in my vehicle. If I forget, I go without a bag or find another way to make it work. No ifs, ands , or buts.

That’s what it comes down to with all these challenges, really. If I commit, no excuses, there’s a lot I can accomplish. Let’s see where February takes us!

5 Steps to Surviving an Election Year

Because I’m an historian, you would think that I’m into politics and current events. But in reality, I dislike the political process. History is done. We can find new evidence, but we can’t change what happened. I love digging for clues and coming up with answers. But current events are a different deal. They’re still unfolding, they’re hard to corroborate, and they’re flat-out rude and contentious.

The Democrats allegedly care about the poor. The Republicans supposedly care about the unborn. The Democrats claim to care about education. The Republicans promise not to raise my taxes. Both sides want what’s best for the country, they just have different ideas about what that is. And I’ve found reasons to appreciate and to hate both sides.

You can try voting for candidates based on their personal merit, but let’s be honest, there isn’t always a candidate with a lot of personal integrity. It takes a certain, shall we say, ego, to want national political office, and driven, leading types tend to be bullies.

And what if neither side puts up a candidate you can respect? You can dig around and vote third party, but both sides will tell you that you’re throwing away your vote. (If enough of us vote third party, though… But that’s a different topic all together). Sadly a lot of us end up voting based on who we think is the “lesser of two evils,” though that still has us voting for “evil.” (maybe not literally evil, but you get the idea)

Don’t even get me started on the ads. For nearly a year leading up to the election there’s a constant hammering of scare tactics, arguing, and intimidation thrown at us with each commercial break. She broke promises. He’s in the pocket of special interests. She wants to take away medicare. He wants to tax you to death. Blah, blah, blah. I swear it’s a miracle we don’t all have some kind of trauma damage by election day.

So how do we survive this election season?

  1. No matter who is in the White House, God is on the throne
    This truth should calm your heart. Historically, America has gone back and forth between conservative and liberal leaders. I honestly think this is part of God’s plan for out nation, because it has kept us from straying too far in either direction. God is not a Republican. God is not a Democrat. God is not an American. His ways are higher than our ways, and His thoughts are higher than our thoughts. One election is not the end of the world, because God is still there and He is still in control. Take hope in that.
  2. Pray
    Romans 13:1 – Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God.
    1 Timothy 2:1-4 – I urge, then, first of all, that petitions, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for all people— for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness. This is good, and pleases God our Savior, who wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth.
    God’s goal is the Heavenly kingdom, not an earthly one. But He is aware and involved in our life on Earth, including our politics. Whether your candidate won or lost, pray for those in authority. Pray that God would get hold of their hearts and use them and their decisions for His glory.
  3. Pay attention, but don’t let it consume you
    Ugh, the ads. Right? And the anger! I hate those “news” shows that bring on diametrically opposed people and let them yell at each other on television for an hour. What’s the point? I’ll admit it – I’d rather put on my noise-cancelling headphones than pay attention to a debate. But as a responsible adult, I have to do a lot of things I don’t want to do (paying bills, going to the gym…). Paying attention to the political process is one of those things. We have to know who the political candidates are and what they stand for so we can make an informed decision. Voting is your responsibility as a citizen. Take it seriously. But don’t let it take over your life.
  4. Look for reliable and varied sources
    Listen, if you love Fox News, CNN, or a certain website, and that’s where you get ALL your political information, you will have an imperfect understanding and the biased belief system that they fed to you. As a human being, it is impossible to be unbiased. News sources are run by human beings, and the biases bleed through. Seek a variety of sources for information. Talk to people who have a good heart but see things differently than you do. You might not change your mind, but you’ll have a clearer understanding of why there are different ideas out there and why you believe what you do. There’s nothing worse than an individual who wants to cram their political views down everyone’s throat but refuses to listen to why there are other opinions out there.
  5. Respect
    What it really comes down to in my mind is respect. I have my opinions, but I respect that yours vary. You’re not stupid for seeing things differently than I do. In fact, there are probably things I can learn from you and your perspective, just as there are things you can learn from mine. At the end of the day, my vote is one tiny thing, but my relationships with friends and loved ones are a huge part of my life that will last longer than any politician’s time in office. I can’t change the world with my vote, I can only do my part. But I can change the world by treating others with respect and compassion. People first, politics second.

Repeat this with me: The fate of the country does not depend on me convincing everyone else to vote like me. My relationships with the people in my life are not worth losing over an election. I will seek out varied and reliable sources, both for information and to build up my compassion for those who differ from me. I will pray for God’s will to be done in our country as the election approaches, and pray for those in authority for their whole term. If my candidate loses, God is still on the throne, and He has a bigger and better plan than I do.

Back to Basics

Having just relaunched Food Shelf Friday, I thought it would be a good idea to go back to basics and talk about why I blog about hunger and what a Food Shelf Friday even is.

I have to confess, I never thought I would have a blog. When blogging first took off, I thought bloggers were self-absorbed narcissists who basically kept a diary that was published for all the world to see. My life was not (and is not) that exciting. I didn’t read blogs, and I never considered writing one.

As time went on, blogging became less about “what I did today” and more about specific topics. I found a blogger who wrote about vintage fashion, and her work was useful to me as an historian. I followed a blogger who taught couponing and provided great resources. As I came to understand blogging, I grew to appreciate it, but I still didn’t see myself as someone with something to contribute.

One day I was asked a simple question about what the local food shelf/food bank needs. I had some experience from volunteer projects I’d done, so I was able to answer. This spawned another question and another, and I realized that I had some level of expertise that I wasn’t even aware of. When I got home that night I kept thinking that there should be a place that average people can go to find resources. Somewhere that could answer these questions so we can truly, effectively help others. That’s when it dawned on me that a blog could be that place. I dug around online and didn’t find anything like I was imagining, so I started brainstorming names.

My church was in the middle of an initiative called Hope for Dinner at that time, and I loved the idea that by eating rice and beans each night we were sharing in a common experience while raising money to help those in need. I decided that my family could do something similar, and the concept of a Food Shelf Friday was born.

Every Friday (or whatever day of the week works for you), participating families exchange their usual dinner for the kind of simple meal people get when they visit a food shelf.  At the same time, they purchase the identical ingredients to donate.  By simplifying our dinner we can provide dinner for another family without incurring any additional cost while learning to appreciate the challenges of food insecurity.

FSF meals include:
Tuna Helper and veggies (1 box Tuna Helper, 2 cans of Tuna, two cans of veggies)
Pancakes and fruit (1 box of pancake mix, 1 container of syrup, 1-2 cans of fruit)
Spaghetti and veggies (1 package of dry pasta, 1 can or jar of pasta sauce, 1-2 cans of veggies)
Soup (canned or dry soup, stew, or chili, and a shelf stable bread product like muffin or cornbread mix)
Rice & Beans (1 lb bag of rice, canned or dry beans, cans of additional canned veggie ingredients)

Here in Minnesota our local food banks are called food shelves. I didn’t know this was a local-ism until I set up my site and started researching. Everything I found when searching “food shelf” came up local, but “food bank” came up with information from all over the country. I decided to own it and stick with Food Shelf Friday.

Researching fast enough to write a weekly blog post is the hardest part of this. Since I started Food Shelf Friday in 2014 I’ve written a thesis and finished my master’s degree in history, launched a kid into college/adulthood, and worked. I currently work two jobs and commute 40+ miles each way, so it’s not like I have a lot of spare time on my hands!

My favorite part is meeting people who are also passionate about doing real good and helping the world’s hungry. My personal Facebook newsfeed has become very inspiring as I’ve found different people and organizations to follow!

Food Shelf Friday is on Facebook, Twitter account (@foodshelffriday), and Pinterest. That’s where I share a lot of what others are doing, and things I find inspiring. FSF has an Instagram as well (@foodshelffriday), but that’s something I’m just starting to build.

If making a REAL difference in the world while affirming dignity and hope in others is something you care about, come along on this journey. Try Food Shelf Friday dinners with your family. Follow FSF on social media. And share with me (blog comment or Facebook DM work best) questions you have, book/documentary suggestions, and things you’d like to see me dig into. I always appreciate the suggestions!

January Challenge: One Thousand Things

Last week I told you about my word for 2020 – Challenge

This week I’m sharing my January challenge with you. I call it ‘One Thousand Things’ and just like the name implies, I’m getting rid of one thousand things. When I told my son about it, he asked if I even own one thousand things. I assured him that I have that and more – LOTS more! We all have a lot more stuff than we think…

So here are the rules:

  • Regular garbage like packaging, used tissues, junk mail, and food waste don’t count. That’s just garbage. But things that need to (finally…) be sorted or which could be kept do count. So expired medications, leftover candy, or the frozen bananas I’m holding onto for the magical “someday” when I’m going to make banana bread – those things count.
  • Things which don’t get separated, like shoes, socks, or earrings, count as one item. Likewise, the pills in a bottle are not counted out – a bottle of expired ibuprofen is one item. Things that are separate items are counted individually, so five old magazines is five items.
  • Items are sold, tossed, or donated. The goal of decluttering is not to fill up the landfill, nor is it to inundate Goodwill with things that should be trash. The goal is a thoughtful sort, and that means that things with value are sold, things with life are donated, and things that are beyond help are recycled or tossed.

To be brutally honest, a thousand is a huge number. And here on day three, I’ve only gotten rid of three things. I don’t know if I’ll hit a thousand, but that’s what makes it a challenge! I’ll let you know on Facebook how it’s going.

My other goals for 2020 include:

  • I will purchase for myself ONLY clothing, shoes, and accessories which were produced using fair trade labor, or which were bought second-hand. I’ve done this before, and I made it deep into the year before I needed something I couldn’t find fair trade. The real key to this goal is remembering that I really don’t NEED more clothes, shoes, or accessories. But when I’d really LIKE to have something new, it’s fun to look for fair trade options or shop thrift bargains. As long as I don’t need undergarments, a swimming suit, or another pair of running shoes, I can do this!
  • I aim to read 100 books per year. I’ve never gotten there, but it’s my goal again in 2020.
  • I will make three microfinance loans through Kiva. My little lending profile is almost at the point where payments on outstanding loans are fronting the next loan (sometimes I have to supplement just a little to get there). I started doing this a few years ago by making two loans a year with my birthday and Christmas money. Last year I added a third loan in August because the returns allowed it. I plan to keep that up until managing my loans becomes a monthly thing. I really love looking at all the projects and supporting men and women around the world who just need a small loan at a low rate to increase their capabilities.

Don’t forget to follow @FoodShelfFriday on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and Pinterest. There’s lots to see and lots of ways to get inspired! Happy new year!