DISCOVER

Speed Bumps or Off the Tracks?

Life is full of unexpected demands - the car breaks down, the kids get sick. For some families, these are merely speed bumps. But for other families, they can be thrown completely off the tracks.

  • You’re on your way to pick up your five-year-old daughter from school when the police pull you over for a broken tail light.
    Click me
    or
    or click me
     

    SPEED BUMP

    The cop wasn’t very polite about it, but he heard my story and let me go with a warning that I had a week to fix the tail light.

     

    OFF THE TRACKS

    The cop gave me a $220 ticket, just like that. I started to explain my five-year-old daughter is waiting for me and he yelled, ‘Shut up or you’re going to jail right now.’ That’s the third time I’ve been pulled over driving this beat-up junker. But I need a car for work and can’t afford a new one. The cop’s running a check on outstanding parking tickets now. I know I’ve got a least three I couldn’t pay off yet. Bet he arrests me on a warrant. How am I going to pick up my daughter now? Makes me wanna holler. Or worse.

  • Uh oh. This weekend your boss needs you to work the double shift and your partner is working her usual weekend hours and you don't have childcare set up.
    Click me
    or
    or click me
     

    SPEED BUMP

    Luckily, the family next door is willing to watch our daughter and put her to bed at their place. I’ve done the same for them before.

     

    OFF THE TRACKS

    I don't know what to do. Our friends and family are already peeved by how often I’ve asked them to watch the kids. I can't afford a babysitter even if I could find one on such short notice. I could tell my manager, “No”, but that's risky—he might reduce my hours during the week, and if he’s really in a foul mood he might even let me go. He’s threatened that before. I have to choose between keeping my job and taking care of my child. What a choice!

  • That sniffle and scratchy throat you had last night has exploded into a full-blown cold. You’d like to call in sick for work.
    Click me
    or
    or click me
     

    SPEED BUMP

    My supervisor understands. I can use one of my paid sick days the company provides—get well soon.

     

    OFF THE TRACKS

    I can't call in sick. The last person who did lost her job. Plus I don't get paid for sick days and our family needs every dollar I bring in. Staying home and getting better makes sense in the long run but we’re scratching to get by each day and provide our kids a stable home. I’ll grab the cold meds, suck it up and go to work. Hope I’m not too contagious.

  • The recent cold wave has caused your heating bill to spike. You owe $150 more this month than last month.
    Click me
    or
    or click me
     

    SPEED BUMP

    What a drag. That’s the $150 I put into our 401K retirement plan each month. Maybe we can put the thermostat down a few degrees and look for other ways to better insulate our home and conserve electricity.

     

    OFF THE TRACKS

    That’s the cash I needed to pay down my used car loan and credit card. With interest compounding on those loans, getting the rent money together next month will be tight. If it’s not one thing, it’s another. I worry we’ll never get our heads above water. The constant anxiety’s making me crazy. I can’t sleep. And it’s increasingly hard to hide it all from the children.

  • Forecasters are predicting a winter storm tomorrow so all the schools are closed for the day and your two kids are staying home.
    Click me
    or
    or click me
     

    SPEED BUMP

    Guess I can take a day off of work. Maybe I can get some work done at home while the kids are playing. I’ll make up any lost work time during the evening.

     

    OFF THE TRACKS

    Can I bring the kids to work? I can't miss work because I can't afford to lose the money or the hours. Will my boss be OK with the kids coming to work? What will I get them for lunch? Would it be safe to leave them at home alone?

WHAT’S GOING ON?

Parents faced many different kinds of stressors which in turn may affect the act of parenting itself.  “Speed Bumps or Off the Tracks” explores some of the “little things” parents lacking money have to live with day in and day out and which devour their time and thinking.

Sendhil Mullainathan, a behavioral economist and co-author of Scarcity: Why Having So Little Means So Much, argues that all humans have limited mental bandwidth, or psychic resources, and that juggling bills, fearing a supervisor’s wrath, anxiety over debts, fear of the police and other crises leave less mental bandwidth available to identify and tend appropriately to the often subtle emotional needs of our young children.

In an article published in the W.K. Kellogg Foundation’s 2011 annual report, Mullainathan and Saugato Datta observe, Good parenting requires psychic resources. Complex decisions must be made. Sacrifices must be made in the moment. This is hard for anyone, whatever their income: we all have limited reserves of self-control and attention and other psychic resources.

Mullainathan and Datta continue:

Low-income parents, however, also face a tax on their psychic resources. Many things that are trifling and routine to the well-off give sleepless nights to those less fortunate….Shocks get magnified. For the well-off, a broken-down car is little more than a temporary annoyance. If need be, they can just take a cab. For those with less income, it necessitates real, meaningful tradeoffs and painful sacrifices. If taking a cab becomes unavoidable, it may mean having to spend less on groceries. It may mean cutting back on the time spent with a child on account of having to work extra hours to make up for the unexpected expenses. Equally, trying to avoid shelling out the cab fare may mean taking an extra couple of hours to get to work, with less time and energy left over for other things, not least supervising a child’s school work and keeping tabs on his social life.
Well-off people have the luxury of freedom of mind. Their psychic resources are reserved for difficult and important things… But those with less income are not as fortunate. They have the same (limited) capacity for self-control and attention—but are forced to expend a large fraction of it dealing with the ups and downs of everyday life… This leaves less psychic resources for the important things in life. Part of the mind is constantly fretting about putting food on the table…

That’s why, Mullainathan and Datta argue

A very good parenting program may not look like one at all. Deal with the economic instability that taxes psychic resources. For example, stabilize incomes, provide low-income credit alternatives to deal with the ups and downs of life, or ensure stable housing. These may not be parenting programs in the conventional sense of the term. But by freeing up psychic resources they allow people to be the parents they want to be.

In other words, as political scientist Glenn Loury observed, it’s not about poor parents’ personalities or even the material things they go without which affect parenting. Perhaps the most important thing money can buy is peace of mind. That’s not to say that rich parents are not under stress and are always good parents. Far from it. Only that economic insecurity makes a hard job that much harder.

TAKE-AWAY:

The best parenting programs may have little to do with parenting at all.

 

Dig Deeper

Are Debtors' Prisons Back?

Dig Deeper

Are Debtors' Prisons Back?

 

This New York Times article and this episode of comedian John Oliver’s TV show illustrate a municipal practice which combines the entanglements of Kafka with the debtors' prisons of Dickens. The result: even greater stressors placed disproportionately on the poor, especially poor people of color.

Here’s how it works: Police go to great lengths to bust people for parking, traffic or other minor violations. When those ticketed are unable to pay the fines and fees right away, the town or county contracts with for-profit probation companies to collect the debt. The companies add “service fees” and penalties. The debt grows to hundreds, even thousands of dollars. Paying it off grows more and more burdensome and unmanageable. Soon arrest warrants are issued. It’s a way for municipalities to generate revenues without raising taxes and companies to reap profits on the backs of the most vulnerable. Families are being ripped apart as a result.

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