What explains the differences in economic decisions amongst poor and rich individuals?
In 2014 Johannes Haushofer and Ernst Fehr, professors at Princeton and Zurich University, respectively, have written the article “On the Psychology of Poverty” for the Science magazine (original version here). They show evidence that poverty causes psychological consequences such as negative affectivity and stress with unexpected changes in economic behavior by changing individuals’ revealed preferences and leading to short-sighted and risk-averse decision making. But what are the channels through which poverty could arise and perpetuate itself?
Bear in mind two things when interpreting their findings. First, although poverty is defined as the lack of sufficient income, it is also characterized by the exposure to dysfunctional institutions, violence, crime, poor access to health care, etc. Second, being born in such an environment can trigger processes that reinforce poverty. For instance, lower willingness to take risks, adopt new technologies, invest in education and health, together with present-biased income preferences, make it harder to escape from poverty.
The effect of poverty on economic behavior. Some laboratory experiments have randomly assigned individuals to income shocks after they have earned some money in an effort assignment. Then, researchers compared the discounting of future payoffs between “treated” individuals with negative income shocks and the “control” group, who didn’t experience any changes. Such exogenous manipulation of income eliminates any potential reverse causality between discount rates and income. They found that individuals with negative shocks on income showed more present-bias behavior than others. No analogous effect was obtained for positive shock on income.
The effect of poverty on psychological characteristics. Recent findings show a positive correlation between income and happiness/life satisfaction both within and across countries (see fig.1).
According to the World Health Report, the poorest population quintiles in rich countries have records of depression and anxiety disorder up to twice as large as that of the richest quintiles. Besides, there are numerous findings that poverty is positively correlated with the stress hormone cortisol, as well as depression, anxiety and unhappiness. One should already expect such relationship, but is it a causal one?
Causal effect of poverty on affectivity and stress. A study by Haushofer and Shapiro (2013) evaluated the effects of an unconditional cash transfer program in Kenya on psychological well-being, by measuring characteristics such as happiness, life satisfaction, depression and stress. Individuals were randomly selected to receive transfers of $0, $400 or $1,500, and they found positive effects for all variables whenever receiving any positive transfer. However, levels of the stress hormone cortisol decreased only for the ones receiving a large transfer.
A series of natural experiments (e.g. lottery payouts, introduction of guaranteed incomes, access to pensions) suggest causal links between increases of income and well-being (e.g. reduction in hospitalization, lower consumption of anxiolytics, increased self-reported mental health). Randomized control trials also show that offering households access to health insurance, better housing conditions and access to water have a significant effect on psychological well-being.
The takeaway from this review is that the poor may intrinsically have identical time and risk preferences to those of wealthier people, but their discount rates and risk-taking behavior can change if living in a chronic condition of poverty. Should a welfare state intervene to avoid the creation of a poverty trap? According to the authors, there are three possible courses of action to break this vicious circle, which requires directly targeting:
- poverty through poverty alleviation programs (e.g. cash transfers), proven to increase general welfare;
- its psychological consequences (e.g. interpersonal psychotherapy);
- its deriving economic behaviors (e.g. commitment savings account, reminders to save), which usually lead to considerable increases in savings.
These interventions allow us to better understand the relationship between poverty, its consequences and their potentially negative effects on decision-making, giving us a fresh perspective on how development economics can help to tackle poverty.