The Challenges of Scarcity And How It Captures The Mind



I can count ten times over how many days I've obsessed about not wanting to live without life's necessities or to be a person who lives "just to get by."

I know where these thoughts stem from and often like most of the experiences I write about on here, I can tie it to my encounters with scarcity as a child.

I watched my parents obsessed over if they purchase an item for $20.00, it would be $20.00 less they had to spend elsewhere. The constant trade-offs, figuring out what bills were more important to pay and what kind of food would last until the next pay period were common.

The truth is, some bills were paid, and others were postponed, some times we had meals other times we had a sleep. Amid these patterns, I observed that what we didn't have our mind was preoccupied with thoughts about it.

Our stomachs growled when we saw food on T.V even down to our fundamental interactions in with people; it caused us to remember that we were facing a deficit.

In one of our worst periods, I made a promise to my future self that I never would experience that severity of scarcity as an adult.

As I reflect on these memories, I am in my period of transition. I recently received my Masters' Degree. I am formulating a plan to build financial stability for myself before going on to pursue my final degree. In this chapter of my life, I'll be paying back student loans (one more bill added for me), getting to know myself, and celebrating life my way.

Over the past two years, through my journey in Grad school, my mentality surrounding money has centered on scarcity. Playing back the conversations I've had with family members and friends they each share a common theme: "I am scared of living without life's necessities".

I remember telling myself: "I didn't go to school to live how I grew up. "I didn't pursue higher education to stay broke."

You can call it being a pessimist but, when you grow up in childhood poverty and experience what it's like to live paycheck to paycheck you too would be hungry (no pun intended) to have a sturdy cushion.

After showcasing my fear for the 1,000,000th time, my mentor told me I should look into research on scarcity. Taking her up on her advice, I eventually came to terms that scarcity, not only captures the mindset, but it consumes your ability to think clearly about anything else other than the limits around you.

Let me explain:

The definition of scarcity is defined as the state of being scarce or having less than you need to survive. In Social Psychology it analyzes The Scarcity Mindset of how "people's minds are less efficient when they feel they lack something — whether it is money, time, calories, or even companionship. It's a subjective sense of having more needs than resources". When discussed regarding finance, the majority of explanations about this mindset revolves around the idea that people believe there is not enough to go around. It is the individual's choices of people who are to blame for the conditions they experience in scarcity.

Authors such as the late Stephen Covey examines The Scarcity Mindset as destructive, and competition focused. For Covey, his theory follows the Zero-Sum’s game (shout to game theory) where personal gains and losses of another balance an individual's gain and loss. Covey, explains that to overcome this mindset, individuals must build healthy self-esteem and willingness to break through their obstacles.

Sounds like the “bootstrap theory.”

Not quite right to be honest, hell, truth be told every article I’ve read in the past few months on scarcity focuses on toxic behaviors of an individual, their habits and how people in low socio-economic status (SES) process their experiences. These perspectives come from privileged White voices.

The truth is that there are people who have self-esteem and work diligently to fight through life’s challenges and STILL struggle with scarcity.

Although it’s important to acknowledge the behaviors and psychology behind individuals experiencing scarcity, it is also noteworthy to highlight historically how discussions in academia have attacked the poor, and have perpetrated a disturbing theory called the “culture of poverty.”

The “culture of poverty” assesses the individual agency people have over their social mobility. For instance, over the past 60 years, this theory has depended on classist views and racist ideology assessing the differences amongst ethnic groups and their financial class.

Scarcity is a broad concept that expands beyond not having enough, and the behavior of people who experience it.

“Scarcity is more than just going without it imposes on our mind.”

That’s a lesson I’ve learned from Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much.

This summer, I’ve dedicated time to understanding the trauma of my childhood poverty and how, as an adult, I’m maneuvering past the experiences of not having enough. I have to work through these experiences daily.

I sometimes feel pressure in the morning when I wake up.

I was confused about the shift from being in high school and living in poverty to being college and living broke.

I’m always making sure my account looks stable.

I call my friend to discuss some of my anxiety around scarcity as he too is experiencing a similar journey.

I seek therapy because what’s a financial journey without it.

I guess that’s because I want to know what life looks like without living in fear of scarcity and breaking brokeness. What I understand is that I was so concerned by deficiency well before a study confirmed that my experiences in this state didn’t make room for things on the periphery.

It’s not that I have adopted a mindset that is keeping me down, or that I am mentally imprisoned by what's in my head. I have physically lived through these experiences, and just as I have existed through them, I will need to reflect on how to live as I climb.

Once anyone experiences scarcity and its long-term effects, they have to work twice as hard to undo its physical, mental, and emotional damage.

It reminds me of an inspiring lyric in Sly & The Family Stone's song Life.

“You don’t have to die before you live.”

This is what the challenge of scarcity pushes us to do, find ways to live even when we don’t have much. As we gain more, we then face the obstacle of being consumed by the fear of living on little.

Now, for some, this may appear as a valid reason why people struggle financially. This theory identifies that people physiologically trap themselves into the cycles of brokeness and poverty, and being broke is just a state of mind.


But truth be told it’s more than that. As Amanda Seales explains in her podcast "Small Doses":

1. There are many levels of Broke

2. Consistent Brokeness is poverty.

3. Broke= breaking the consistency of monetary momentum is broken (ex. being in-between jobs)

Seales further explains you find yourself trying to start this momentum when you want to get out of poverty, and when you're broke, you find yourself trying to restart it.

When you start and restart over so much it can take a toll on your mind.