Scarcity, Money, and Undocumented Immigrants
Scarcity refers to having less than one needs -- time, money, calories when on a diet. For example, not having enough money reduces a person's cognitive capacity as much as missing one full night of sleep. When Scarcity, by Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir, was published, Slipster Katie Porter connected its lessons about the mental tax of not having enough to adding a "cushion" to a chapter 13 plan. And now, Slipster Nathalie Martin's recently published paper, Survival in the Face of Scarcity: The Undocumented Immigrant Experience, uses her hour-long interviews with 50 undocumented immigrants living in Albuquerque, New Mexico to explore how their acute financial scarcity impacts their lives. Though the paper is focused on undocumented immigrants, some of the lessons of the narrative that Martin weaves apply equally to all cash-strapped people.
In addition, Martin found that this type of scarcity changes how people think about their expenses. Researchers, including Martin, typically ask people how they would cope with an unexpected expense, such as arising from an unanticipated medical problem, as differentiated from how they would cope with expected expenses, such as through budgeting. But 74% of the individuals who Martin interviewed indicated that they could not afford a $100 unexpected expense. For these people, as Martin writes, "it made little sense to try to tease out whether certain coping strategies for economic scarcity" varied based on whether the person faced an expected or an unexpected expense. Rather, "expenses were just expenses" for these individuals. For people on the financial precipice all the time, "unexpected was expected." Martin's findings again suggest that the breadth of their financial scarcity taxes these individuals' cognitive capacity. And though the conclusions in Martin's paper apply best to the undocumented immigrants living in Albuquerque, the lessons of her interviews likely can be extended to help understand how all severely cash-strapped people cope with their financial circumstances.
Finally, beyond exploring these undocumented immigrants' economic scarcity, Martin's paper discusses how strict immigration laws and deportation as a looming threat uniquely affects their ability to cope. Over at JOTWELL, Jill Family has written a post that focuses on this aspect of Martin's paper.