Unlearning Long Divisions: Safety Nets & Bandwidths

Unlearning Long Divisions: Introduction

The prison fence obviously divides us, but we are separated in other more subtle structural ways, by how we build wealth—or are not able to—by wide opportunity gaps; by our own judgments, assumptions and inabilities to listen to and know each other; by neighborhoods, lifestyles, and cultural misunderstandings. America has always had its separations, of class, race, cultural groups and religions, but it seems that the rancorous voices of political campaigns, talk radio, and online comments have turned up the volume and deepened the divisions between us. Much of it is fear-driven, no more evident than how we perceive people who are behind bars. The ideas in the following posts come from my interactions with my inmate students, who taught me how to unlearn many of my own assumptions—and to see them and my country in new ways.


Unlearning Long Divisions: Safety Nets and Bandwidths

I don’t make great decisions when I’m stressed, worried, or sleep deprived.  I say or write things at the wrong time and in the wrong way. I push “send” when I haven’t had enough time or energy to think through what I’m writing. I usually pay my bills as quickly as possible, but at the end of the month in which I lost a family member, I was shocked to find them in the mail with interest charges and late fees. I simply hadn’t thought about my bills at all. In our consumer-driven culture, I make silly purchases when I’m feeling stressed. But, I have never been in a situation when I believed that my current upsets and stresses would last indefinitely. I belong to a big family that provides a safety net. Millions of people don’t have that kind of security, and for many their sense of insecurity lasts a lifetime.

I’ve always heard talk about poor people being lazy. And, I certainly hear a lot of judgments about people behind bars: their criminal behavior, their poor choices, their lack of motivation, and their laziness. So often, prison and poverty are inextricably linked. So many of the men I knew in prison came from impoverished communities; some from abject poverty.

 I’ve thought a lot about these “poor choices.” If a young boy’s father is in jail, if his mom has two jobs to support the family, if his school is failing him, if his community is dangerous, and if he sees few people working because there are so few jobs, I wonder what his good choices might be? When my students made choices to swallow their pride and acknowledge the hard work necessary to graduate, they were perfectly capable of making good decisions. When incarcerated, school is a good place to be—and they knew it.

However, when they had news about serious problems, a sickness or a death of someone they loved at home, when they worried about their own health, when they had problems in their unit with a bunkie or an officer, they didn’t always make good decisions as students. When they were “short”—close to going home—maintaining their same level of performance was very often difficult.

Mr. Gregory, an African-American man in his mid-30’s, was neatly dressed and soft-spoken. In my English class he was an exemplary student, so well read that he brought me titles that the class could read and that I should read. “The character development in this novel blew me away,” he would say as he either gave me a title or loaned me a book he had somehow managed to get from the outside. He was never late and never missed a class. I couldn’t ever give him less than an A.

Then, just as he was getting ready to graduate and go home, he fell completely apart. He’d been incarcerated for more than ten years, and he was extremely worried about what awaited him outside the fence. When I talked to him about college, he asked me how he would ever be able to afford it. He was going home to Detroit, not a place with a plethora of jobs for anyone, let alone people who had criminal records. His assignments went missing, and they were done poorly. He reported that he was constantly distracted, worried, and losing sleep every night. He came to class, but his usual role as a discussion leader disappeared. It seemed the person he had been had disappeared too.

I saw the same kinds of stress and worry about going home with many of my students. I watched how stress affected their school performance. I wondered about the impoverished conditions they had come from; I wondered about the tragedies and traumas they had experienced. I wondered how all of that had affected the choices they had made.

Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir have written a book called Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much. They identify our mental capacity as bandwidth, and explain it like this:

We can measure fluid intelligence, a key resource that affects how we process information and make decisions. We can measure executive control, a key resource that affects how impulsively we behave. And we find that scarcity reduces all these components of bandwidth—it makes us less insightful, less forward-thinking, less controlled. And, the effects are large. Being poor, for example, reduces a person’s cognitive capacity more than going one full night without sleep. It is not that the poor have less bandwidth as individuals. Rather it is that the experience of poverty reduces anyone’s bandwidth. (1)

Mullainathan and Shafir go on to explain other kinds of scarcity like not having enough time, or friends, or food and that scarcity operates on top of culture, economic forces and personality.

It is so easy to judge other people and label them lazy, or as Congressman Paul Ryan has noted, “We don’t want to turn the safety net into a hammock that lulls able-bodied people into complacency and dependence.”

I don’t think wanting to be dependent is a natural human tendency. What I saw in my prison students was how much my students wanted self-reliance and self-worth. Once they figured out how to become competent students, they worked hard. Looking ahead to getting out, they wanted jobs. Maybe if we examined our own experiences of scarcity, we would understand other groups and why they seem to make “poor choices.” I’ve often wondered what I would do if I were constantly worried about the basics like housing and food—or worse, if my children were constantly hungry or we were facing homelessness. I don’t think I would do very well, nor would I be working on long-term goals.

1.  Mullainathan, Sendhil and Shafir, Eldar, Scarcity: why having too little means so much, p. 13.