Home » Rutger Bregman: Poverty Isn’t a Lack of Character; It’s a Lack of Cash (Transcript)

Rutger Bregman: Poverty Isn’t a Lack of Character; It’s a Lack of Cash (Transcript)

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Rutger Bregman

Here is the full transcript of journalist Rutger Bregman’s TEDx Talk: Poverty Isn’t a Lack of Character; It’s a Lack of Cash at TED conference. 

Listen to the MP3 Audio: Poverty isn’t a lack of character; it’s a lack of cash by Rutger Bregman at TED conference


I’d like to start with a simple question: Why do the poor make so many poor decisions? I know it’s a harsh question, but take a look at the data. The poor borrow more, save less, smoke more, exercise less, drink more and eat less healthfully.

Why? Well, the standard explanation was once summed up by the British Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher. And she called poverty “a personality defect”. A lack of character, basically.

Now, I’m sure not many of you would be so blunt. But the idea that there’s something wrong with the poor themselves is not restricted to Mrs Thatcher. Some of you may believe that the poor should be held responsible for their own mistakes. And others may argue that we should help them to make better decisions.

But the underlying assumption is the same: there’s something wrong with them. If we could just change them, if we could just teach them how to live their lives, if they would only listen.

And to be honest, this was what I thought for a long time. It was only a few years ago that I discovered that everything I thought I knew about poverty was wrong. It all started when I accidentally stumbled upon a paper by a few American psychologists. They had traveled 8,000 miles, all the way to India, for a fascinating study. And it was an experiment with sugarcane farmers.

You should know that these farmers collect about 60% of their annual income all at once, right after the harvest. This means that they’re relatively poor one part of the year and rich the other. The researchers asked them to do an IQ test before and after the harvest. What they subsequently discovered completely blew my mind. The farmers scored much worse on the test before the harvest.

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The effects of living in poverty, it turns out, correspond to losing 14 points of IQ. Now, to give you an idea, that’s comparable to losing a night’s sleep or the effects of alcoholism.

A few months later, I heard that Eldar Shafir, a professor at Princeton University and one of the authors of this study, was coming over to Holland, where I live. So we met up in Amsterdam to talk about his revolutionary new theory of poverty. And I can sum it up in just two words: scarcity mentality.

It turns out that people behave differently when they perceive a thing to be scarce. And what that thing is doesn’t much matter — whether it’s not enough time, money or food. You all know this feeling, when you’ve got too much to do, or when you’ve put off breaking for lunch and your blood sugar takes a dive. This narrows your focus to your immediate lack — to the sandwich you’ve got to have now, the meeting that’s starting in five minutes or the bills that have to be paid tomorrow. So the long-term perspective goes out the window.

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