Respecting the preferences of the poor

One feature, in particular, stands out. The life of the rural poor is extremely boring, with repetitive back-breaking tasks interrupted by periods of enforced idleness; it is far removed from Marie-Antoinettish idylls of Arcadia. As the authors remark, villages do not have movie theatres, concert halls, places to sit and watch interesting strangers go by and frequently not even a lot of work. This may sound rather demeaning to the poor, like Marx's comment about “the idiocy of rural life”.
But it is important to understand because, as the authors remark, “things that make life less boring are a priority for the poor”. They tell the story of meeting a Moroccan farmer, Oucha Mbarbk. They ask him what would he do if he had a bit more money. Buy some more food, came the reply. What would he do if he had even more money? Buy better, tastier food. “We were starting to feel very bad for him and his family when we noticed a television, a parabolic antenna and a DVD player.” Why had he bought all this if he didn't have enough money for food? “He laughed and said ‘Oh, but television is more important than food.'”
Nutritionists and aid donors often forget this. To them, it is hard to imagine anything being more important than food. And the poorer you are, surely, the more important food must be. So if people do not have enough, it cannot be because they have chosen to spend the little they have on something else, such as a television, a party, or a wedding. Rather it must be because they have nothing and need help. Yet well-intentioned programmes often break down on the indifference of the beneficiaries. People don't eat the nutritious foods they are offered, or take their vitamin supplements. They stick with what makes life more bearable, even if it is sweet tea and DVDs.

From a piece at the Economist kicking off a discussion of the book Poor Economics by Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo. When people throw around the phrase “first world problem” the presumption is that the poor are so many rungs down on Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs that they couldn't possibly have the mindshare to contemplate such a frivolous dilemma. In fact, though, the marginal value of something we consider frivolous may be greater for the poor than for the wealthy. This has been one of the greatest breakthroughs in my understanding of the poor and how they think about where to allocate their next dollar.

I've written about this previously in The Psychological Poverty Trap and The Persistence of Poverty. The latter looked at the work of Charles Karelis, who believes our economic models of the poor are broken.

When we're poor, Karelis argues, our economic worldview is shaped by deprivation, and we see the world around us not in terms of goods to be consumed but as problems to be alleviated. This is where the bee stings come in: A person with one bee sting is highly motivated to get it treated. But a person with multiple bee stings does not have much incentive to get one sting treated, because the others will still throb. The more of a painful or undesirable thing one has (i.e. the poorer one is) the less likely one is to do anything about any one problem. Poverty is less a matter of having few goods than having lots of problems.
Poverty and wealth, by this logic, don't just fall along a continuum the way hot and cold or short and tall do. They are instead fundamentally different experiences, each working on the human psyche in its own way. At some point between the two, people stop thinking in terms of goods and start thinking in terms of problems, and that shift has enormous consequences. Perhaps because economists, by and large, are well-off, he suggests, they've failed to see the shift at all.
If Karelis is right, antipoverty initiatives championed all along the ideological spectrum are unlikely to work - from work requirements, time-limited benefits, and marriage and drug counseling to overhauling inner-city education and replacing ghettos with commercially vibrant mixed-income neighborhoods. It also means, Karelis argues, that at one level economists and poverty experts will have to reconsider scarcity, one of the most basic ideas in economics.

Karelis' thinking is summarized in his book The Persistence of Poverty: Why the Economics of the Well-Off Can't Help the Poor.

Karelis' ideas are one possible explanation behind the effectiveness of Sam Tsemberis' approach towards solving chronic homelessness. Pathways to Housing, the organization Tsemberis founded, believes in giving the homeless housing first, no strings attached, rather than forcing the homeless to jump through a series of hoops before they qualify.

Housing First was developed to serve the chronically homelessness who suffer from serious psychiatric disabilities and addictions. Traditionally, the chronically homeless live in a cycle of surviving on the street, being admitted to hospitals, shelters, or jails and then going back to the street. The stress of surviving each day in this cycle puts a tremendous amount of pressure on the individual’s psychiatric and physical health. “Living in the street,” one Pathways to Housing client said, “It makes you crazy.”
The traditional structures in place to “help” the homeless population often make things worse, particularly for those who suffer from mental illness. Shelters and transitional living programs often require people to pass sobriety tests and other hurdles before they can be considered for housing programs. Housing is considered a reward for good behavior instead of a tool to help stabilize a homeless-person’s mental health. This attitude cuts out the people who need the support the most, effectively punishing them for their conditions. 

Respecting the preferences of the poor means understanding that the logic behind many of their purchase decisions may be very rational under a happiness-maximization framework. That we judge them to be otherwise is more a failure of empathy than anything else.