What is the Scarcity Mindset?

I listened to the NPR Podcast from Hidden Brain. The topic was scarcity. Harvard's behavioral economist, Sendill Mullianathan has studied this concept for decades. He began working with psychologist Eldar Sharif to study how the mind words and how a persons' mental and physical environments affect decisions. From this standpoing, they are looking at, "What happens to our minds—and our decisions—when we feel we have too little of something? Why, in the face of scarcity, do people so often make seemingly irrational, even counter-productive decisions? And if this is true in large populations, why do so few policies and programs take it into account?"

From their perspective, when a person has too little time (think of our adult learners who are often working low wage jobs with irregular shifts), then why aren't they 'better' at managing their time so they can come to class? 

From the perspective of scarcity, individuals lack the 'mental bandwith' to make complex decisions as they are flooded with choices that need to be made in order to survive. From an instructional standpoint, what does this mean? 

Or, is the scarcity theory one more way to blame students in poverty for 'poor decision making'? 

Can you relate to any of these ideas? What do you think about these theories? I'd love to hear your thoughts. 


Kathy Tracey


Kathy, this is a great topic for reflection and journaling. Of course, I can't buy in to a conclusion that the scarcity theory one more way to blame students in poverty for 'poor decision making'." 

To just talk about scarcity in terms of money doesn't really address the issue, which is widespread. Scarcity is a mind set. It is a perspective - a belief. It often has nothing to do with not having enough. Enough for what? There is a big gap between having enough to survive and having enough to be content. People often feel that they don't have enough power, friends, time, health,  intimate relationships, on and on. The belief that I don't have enough of something that I really want or think I need nurtures fear, distrust, jealously, and discontent. 

If I were to develop a writing topic for this issue I might propose something like, "Take a few minutes to examine your life right now. What's working and what isn't? Are there areas in your life where you feel that you need more of something? Be very open as you consider this question. Write one or more of those thoughts down. Now consider how you feel when you think of something that you think you are missing. Write down those feelings.Next, think of areas in your life where you believe you have enough. How do you feel when you think of those areas? Write those down. Finally, write down some thoughts comparing how you react to those two beliefs. What conclusion can you draw?" I think that a good follow up on that writing exercise might be to discuss how the idea of scarcity affects our decisions. 

What can others here contribute to having all of us, students and instructors, discuss this topic and expand on how it affects our lives? Thanks! Leecy

Leecy Wise, Moderator Reading and Writing CoP leecywise@gmail.com

I have seen people w/ that kind of 'scarcity' mindset in and not in poverty.  I hypothesize that it's not so complicated.   

I learned through consistent experiences that ... if I delayed gratification, I ended up w/ having stuff.   A friend from a wealthy, dysfunctional family had no such habits -- but money had been used as emotional weapons, often.   If you were "in favor," you received.   If you fell out of favor, things were taken.   No, it wasn't really logical or sensible. 

   With othe rpeople, I see ... good grief, how can you squirrel things aside when your sister needs rent?  So... again, there isn't a consistent "you work, you make money, you have money."  You don't have those experiences.   

In either case, you learn to use it while you have it.   (My well-off friend preached this.   When I had quit a job, but decided to buy a computer in 1989 b/c I was pretty sure I would need those skills for my career, she approved, saying "yes, you need to spend it while you have it!"   ... as if somehow money disappeared, irrationally.   I had saved $$ and figured if I didn't get a teaching job -- I did -- I could do temp work w/ my computer skills.)  

All that said... I think there's more going on cognitively... or, less, because the bandwidth is literally taken up w/ the other concerns of life.   I found this blog post intriguing and printed out the sheet for those times when I'm thinking "but... I told you this 47 times and I thought you were building comprehension..."   https://realkm.com/2017/04/07/simplified-cognitive-bias-cheat-sheet/   

Thanks for sharing the blog. It reminds me of the term Bounded Rationality, the concept that we make decisions with the information we have at the time. I know that sounds like an obvious statement about decision making, but if we unpack that idea and then apply it to some of the choices our students make, we can understand their experiences a bit better. Kathy

Susan, I love that you brought out  that "if I delayed gratification, I ended up w/ having stuff." So true! I have been so gratified by delaying gratification in many ways! :) Thanks for the great examples of how rewards are often delivered and appreciated the Cognitive Bias Cheat Sheet you shared in the article. The  final suggestion would promote a good writing prompt: "Save this picture to your phone, and use it to prompt you to think about how your cognitive biases impact on your view of the world, the conclusions you draw, and the decisions you make."  Leecy

Kathy this is such a great topic and needed discussion in the adult ed space. I am a Hidden Brain fan and have heard the reporting. 

I think an important aspect of this idea is that many of our learners have been living in scarcity for so long that it is built into their "muscle memory", the brain being the muscle. Let us also not forget that many of our learners come from spaces and environments of scarcity. Be it inner city, rural, adjudication, immigrant or refugee our learners are carrying the burden and history of systematic scarcity.

Where does this leave us as educators?

At the micro level there are a few theories and concepts that could be effective in combating or mitigating the scarcity mindset, throughout our programming, teaching, and engagement with adult learns we should integrate:

  • Growth Mindset
  • Self-Sufficiency Model
  • Cognitive Behavior Therapy
  • Critical Thinking 
  • Restorative Practices
  • Trauma Informed Practices

At the marco level we must continue to push the link between systematic and generation poverty, learning, and an 'educated citizenry'  through advocacy for policies that alleviate the strains of scarcity of all kinds: economic, housing, educational, health and well being, and so much more. 

My question: What are you (the plural you; as in all of us reading this) doing to push these types of solutions? How can we move adult education as a field out of the space of scarcity? How do we move our instruction from a space of scarcity...how many administrators have asked more of their teachers with the same amount of resources? How do we ensure our facilities, teachers, programming etc do not once again be a reminder of scarcity for our learners?


Daquanna Harrison,

Founder, Elevation Educational Consulting Group


Hi all, 

What a great conversation and set of ideas we are building. I love Leecy's idea of journaling. Giving students time to creatively write through journaling is an effective strategy. One strategy that has a lot of promise (and I believe this works for educators as well as students) is mindfulness.  As the explanation of scarcity explores, the idea of both cognitive and emotional bandwith are at maximum capacity, leaving no internal resources left abailable for problem solving or learning. Mindfulness is the use of specific strategies to achieve a state of alert, focused relaxation. When the mind relaxes, there is more capactiy to problem-solve and learn. 

Do any programs integrate mindfulness in their program? What have the results been? 



Daquanna, your questions bring up a key point regarding modeling sufficiency and abundance. You asked, "how many administrators have asked more of their teachers with the same amount of resources? How do we ensure our facilities, teachers, programming etc do not once again be a reminder of scarcity for our learners?"

In my rural region, teachers in adult ed programs don't come close to matching even the scant resources and earning capacity of K-12 teachers. Everyone struggles. I hate to point at funding as the culprit, but I must. Most of our Adult Ed instructors, except for those working through colleges and universities, receive no benefits, work two to three jobs, and cannot make time for the professional development often required for them to stay employed. They sometimes serve students who make more in a week dealing drugs than instructors do in a year! 

All to say that I don't foresee earnings going up in our field, so we simply need to identify rewards other than $ to come to the front, some of which have been suggested here. Any further ideas?

You also said that "we must continue to push the link between systematic and generation poverty." I wonder if you might elaborate a bit more to distinguish between those two. Having worked among slum dwellers in very large cities, I know that the idea of scarcity/poverty is handed down through generations, which is why it's so outstanding to see a few younger folks leap out of the mindset to achieve great things, sometimes through sports and sometimes through academic pursuits. What leads some youngsters to soar away  from that handed-down perception of themselves as poor and needy victims of the system? Does anyone have information or research that would help us start a list? Leecy


Hello Leecy,

Good points about pay in our field. As for your question about systematic and generational poverty, I do want to point out that in my writing I was putting these two together in the same 'bucket' since they are so closely related. Yet, there is a difference and your writing includes those differences.

Systematic Poverty

When you discussed the pay of teachers in adult ed and how it differs based on the 'system' they are hired into ie. CBO vs college you are showing how a system can create or sustain poverty. If the system of adult ed continues to ask teachers to help some of the most needy and educationally traumatized students while paying the teachers so little, making most of them work several jobs to make ends meet etc then it is a system of poverty. The difference is that many of those in the system of pay in adult ed teaching likely have the ability to "escape" the system to better paying jobs. Whereas many other systems of poverty are not as easy to escape. 

Generational Poverty

You touched on aspects of generational poverty, my addition would be that it is not merely passed down but the family or community is encased in environments and circumstances (systems) where those ideas and actions that are passed down are often the primary means of survival. The passing down of these ideas and actions are a form of survival of the fittest. So even with long term negative outcomes possible survival in the here and now outweighs the long term; add in what we now know about scarcity and the cycle continues. 

Those who seem to 'soar away' are often supported and protected by those they seem to being soaring above. The family or community often put many of their scarce resources into these youngsters...even when it does not seem as if they are doing so. These youngsters are often told early on that they are different and though often made fun of for this difference they are given a different set of ideas about self even from the teasing and otherness. It should also be noted that those who 'soar away' are often ill-prepared for their new environment due to the lack of engagement and rule sharing across communities as well as the inability of their families and communities to provide them with supports while in these new environments. Not to mention those youngsters are then 'trying to make it' not just for themselves but for their whole family, leading them to have pressure that others in the new environment do not have, later leading to lower SES since they are often financially supporting family members who could not soar. Thus creating another system of scarcity and poverty just a few levels higher then where they started.

There is research (I cannot put my hands on it right now) that shows that high performing minorities from low-income areas/schools do not do as well in Higher Ed, particularly when they go to ivy league schools or PWIs (Predominately White Institutes). Some of the research points to those institutes not having the services these students need and the students having 'imposter syndrome'. You can also look into diversity research where it shows similar occurrences where businesses diversify but are not prepared for what the diverse persons bring into the environment nor ready for what they may ask of the environment. 

Hopefully this clears up some of what I said. Though you seem to have a good grasp of it. 

Daquanna Harrison,


Right on, Daquanna. I appreciated the details and examples you shared. In my region, I am surrounded by residents and students from very poor Native Reservations. Family and community represent much higher values to them than individual achievement. A few funded projects are, thankfully, recognizing that reality and starting to include the whole family in the whole process of getting students through "the system!" 

I was not familiar with the "imposter syndrome," but I certainly understand it. You've added another term to broaden my thinking.

So many youngsters who "make" it through college or workplace requirements are the first in their families. Instead of imposters, they become models that I hope are increasingly followed. Thanks! Leecy

I'm so glad this topic came up! I've been following this line of research for about a year now and have found it tremendously useful for explaining why social supports are essential in adult education and career pathways. I.e., when programs help students solve problems related to poverty (childcare, transportation, housing, food security, debt, etc.), they increase their mental bandwidth for focusing on their studies.

I am extremely critical of Ruby Payne's work (widely debunked culture of poverty theories from the 1960s) and grit--the latest way to blame poor/working-class adults & kids for not getting further ahead in life. As I understand it, the research on the cognitive consequences of scarcity is NOT a blame-the-victim ideology. Indeed, Shafir & colleagues' experiments show that even well-off people make bad financial decisions when they are told to think about a financial problem before solving a cognitive task. As Shafir puts it, "people aren't poor because they make bad decisions; they make bad decisions because they are poor." Culture of poverty perspectives argue for the former: people are poor because of their bad decisions. 

The experiment with Indian farmers illustrates this point (see Mani et al. abstract below): the same farmers made worse decisions when they were cash-poor (before the harvest) and better decisions when they had money from the harvest.

Here is how I've been using Shafir and colleagues' research in my U.S. Dept. of Education project on career pathways. These are excerpts from an article in progress, so please do not cite without prior permission.

"We propose that wraparound supports work because they expand participants’ “mental bandwidth” (Mullainathan & Shafir, 2013; Schilbach, Schofield, & Mullainathan, 2016). Our mental bandwidth is finite, and for people in poverty, thinking about and managing financial problems imposes a massive cognitive load (Schilbach et al., 2016). In field and laboratory studies, the cognitive impact of thinking about financial concerns was the equivalent of losing a night of sleep—even for people without real financial problems (Mani, Mullainathan, Shafir, & Zhao, 2013). When career pathways programs help students apply for food stamps, pay for transportation, obtain health insurance or childcare, or reduce debt, they increase students’ bandwidth for focusing on academics.

Our data support this interpretation. For instance, during the focus group with students, a dislocated worker stated that because of the agency’s support services, "we don’t have to stress about all those actual life problems. All we have to do is concentrate on our school work….It takes a big burden and a big load off the mind when you don’t have to worry about that, and you just concentrate on the school work, which is very helpful."

In his own words, this student articulated the concept of mental bandwidth: support services reduce the cognitive load of “life problems” and allow students to devote more mental energy to their studies.

Another student had a similar perspective: "They don’t give you no excuse for not being here. You’re going to get here because you get either a bus card or a gas card….I mean, you don’t got no excuse for how you don’t want to be here, because they going to help you with something. I just signed up for [health] insurance the other day. I’ve never had insurance. I didn’t even sign up for insurance. I sat there and gave the guy my information. And then before I knew it, I was [like], oh, wow, now I got insurance!"

A third student needed to get her son’s eyes checked and had been “waiting for weeks” for the insurance company to send a list of in-network doctors. She marveled that a JARC employee supplied this information in a matter of minutes.

The Center for Working Families director explained that they provide bundled support services “in order for people to be able to focus on the end goal, which is to remain in training”: "Through the relationships they build with support staff, students end up coming to us with whatever their challenges are because they know that we’ll try to figure something out for them. And that is a thing that kind of keeps them coming back. Because they can see that it’s starting to make sense and they want to kind of stay on the training at that point because they know there are supports in place and there’s no judgment."

The students’ and director’s comments suggest that bundled support services help students cope with the tangible, non-academic problems that undermine success in education and employment. They also allow students to focus on their goal and enhance relationships with staff, thereby increasing program completion."


"We posit that wraparound support services help students cope with tangible problems, thereby decreasing the cognitive load of poverty and increasing their mental bandwidth for academic pursuits."

Here are some references:

Mani, A., Mullainathan, S., Shafir, E., & Zhao, J. (2013). Poverty impedes cognitive function. Science, 341(6149), 976-980. doi:10.1126/science.1238041 

Abstract: The poor often behave in less capable ways, which can further perpetuate poverty. We hypothesize that poverty directly impedes cognitive function and present two studies that test this hypothesis. First, we experimentally induced thoughts about finances and found that this reduces cognitive performance among poor but not in well-off participants. Second, we examined the cognitive function of farmers over the planting cycle. We found that the same farmer shows diminished cognitive performance before harvest, when poor, as compared with after harvest, when rich. This cannot be explained by differences in time available, nutrition, or work effort. Nor can it be explained with stress: Although farmers do show more stress before harvest, that does not account for diminished cognitive performance. Instead, it appears that poverty itself reduces cognitive capacity. We suggest that this is because poverty-related concerns consume mental resources, leaving less for other tasks. These data provide a previously unexamined perspective and help explain a spectrum of behaviors among the poor. We discuss some implications for poverty policy.

Mullainathan, S., & Shafir, E. (2013). Scarcity: Why having too little means so much. New York, NY: Time Books.

Schilbach, F., Schofield, H., & Mullainathan, S. (2016). The psychological lives of the poor. The American Economic Review, 106(5), 435-440.

More research on scarcity and mental bandwidth “This Is Your Stressed-Out Brain On Scarcity “Poverty Impedes Cognitive Function “This is Your Brain on Poverty” How Poverty Taxes the Brain

I was a little puzzled to explain your hypothesis until I read, "We suggest that this is because poverty-related concerns consume mental resources, leaving less for other tasks." I can certainly agree with that, and it appears that you have sound evidence to suggest that it is true! I know that I make bad decisions when I'm stressed, and I can really get stressed whenever I feel financially threatened! 

I wonder if you would consider having your upcoming publication reviewed for inclusion in the LINCS Resource Collection. I'm glad to submit it if you like once it comes out. In fact, if you or others here have suggestions for current research on any topics relating to Adult Ed, please consider recommending those.

I have long investigated the issue of cultural influences on teaching and learning. I love James Spradley's (1980) simple definition of culture: "Culture is the learned, shared knowledge that people use to generate behavior and interpret experience." If he's correct, think of what we can learn about teaching and learning from that perspective!

Like you, I don't buy into discussing issues relating to the poor in terms of Payne's "culture of poverty." However, having worked among the very, very poor in the US and elsewhere for much of my life, I do find that those who are raised in poverty might share some cultural characteristics with those whom Edward Hall places among "high-context" groups. Individuals in those groups relate more to one another that those outside of their group. They tend to be good observers, who rely less on verbal communication to interact since rules are understood and don't have to be posted. Their connections tend to be long term. Family comes first. They are able to do many things at the same time and don't value privacy or time constraints as much as those in the opposite group. They tend to be holistic in viewing the world. They don't belong to a "culture of poverty," no (!),  but the nature of their communities match many characteristics that Hall would place among high-context cultures. Of course, groups fall in between those two extremes all of the time. All to say that instructors would do well to consider those characteristics when working with students raised in poverty in order to differentiate instructional approaches to engage them and those similar to them. Leecy

Leecy Wise, Moderator
Reading and Writing CoP

Hi all, 

This is a very interesting discussion! We tend to acknowledge that poverty is caused by systems and structures, but then tend to apply the "Pick Yourself Up By Your Bootstraps Mentaltiy." If systems cause and perpetuate poverty, then how do we expect students to get themselves 'ahead'. This myth, the culture of poverty is extremely damaging as it leads to deficit thinking.... poor people don't share the same values as middle class indivudals. 

I also think the idea of grit is misunderstood. Much like the theories about growth mindset, there is much to learn, discuss, and debate before we jump in amd make changes to ou r curriculum and teaching practices. However, in contrast to these ideas, there is a wealth of evidence and research on scarcity and mental bandwidth that does not 'blame' students, but rather, provides a framework for effective practices. 


I think these ideas are so easily misunderstood because we filter them through our cultural experiences and understanding.   The same information can lend itself to totally different conclusions... it requires getting out of our own mindsets to better understand others'.   

I'm slowly recognizing the value in working to reduce the stress and that no, it's not as simple as "let's do some relaxation exercises" (though that can help a lot!).   Reading _Lower_Ed_   helped me understand things from different angles, too.

Friends, Fault tolerance is a concept that is often included with the scarcity mindset. I've begun a new conversation to discuss this idea as it relates to student achievement, retention, and outcomes. Join the discussion at https://community.lincs.ed.gov/group/professional-development and share your ideas. Sincerely, Kathy Tracey