Rethinking Scarcity: Real and Imagined Constraints

Blog / Produced by The High Calling
Keith Bacongco child no shoes 480x300

My dad, Marshall Singleton, grew up in scarcity. Though the post-World War II era was a time of abundance for many in the United States, his people hailed from Appalachian Kentucky. To escape their poverty, his grandpa, Daddy-Paw Matt, traveled north with his family toward the hope of prosperity (he also was fleeing a local feud, but that’s another story). Eventually, factory work and hobby-farming allowed my grandpa, my dad’s dad, to patch together a living. But even with money flowing in, with seven children, there was barely enough. As my dad tells it, on breaks from school, they often went barefoot to save their one pair of shoes for occasions when they were required.

In a recent Morning Edition segment on National Public Radio called “How Scarcity Trap Affects Our Thinking, Behavior,” social science correspondent Shankar Vedantam spoke with Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir, authors of Scarcity: Why Having Little Means So Much, about this type of scarcity that is still a reality for many in the United States and around the world. Their research has shown that actual scarcity—whether money, time, or any other resource so severely limited that it can’t be increased—creates a “scarcity mindset” in which decisions are made for short-term survival but limit long-term hope for improvement, what they call the “scarcity trap.”

“Scarcity, whether of time or money, tends to focus the mind on immediate challenges. You stretch your budget to make ends meet. People in the grip of scarcity are tightly focused on meeting their urgent needs, but that focus comes at a price. Important things on the periphery get ignored,” Vendantam summarized.

“That's at the heart of the scarcity trap. You are so focused on the urgent that the important gets waylaid. But because the important gets waylaid, you're experiencing even more scarcity tomorrow,” Mullainathan reiterated.

From Scarcity to Abundance

The mistakes of scarcity can be remedied, however.

When my dad did get out on his own and began earning an income for himself, he recognized that the only way to move out of scarcity was to escape the maddening urgency of his poverty and to plan for its consequences. His motto became “Save everywhere you can so you can spend everywhere you want.”

His plan also meant continuing a habit of scarcity that eventually made abundance possible: saving everything. Rather than throwing out broken and aging things to buy new, he kept them. He pulled nails out of old lumber and straightened them for later use. He filled barrels full of scrap bits of lumber. He saved baby food jars and cottage cheese containers. To this day, he continues to save things like bread ties and plastic bags and old pieces of cardboard and wire. Later, when he is making a home repair or working on a remodeling project, instead of running out to spend money on those things, he goes to his workbench and produces what he needs.

Recently, for his grandson’s birthday, my dad bought a fishing pole and tackle box as a gift. But he also wanted to give him a bait bucket. So, he turned to his storage barn where he found an old coffee can and the handle he had saved from a bucket that was beyond repair. With a little paint and a few screws, he created the perfect worm pail out of the salvaged materials.

On hearing the story, a friend asked, “Why would you ever save the handle of an old bucket?” My dad’s response: “Because I might need it.” And he did.

From Abundance Back to Scarcity

But correcting scarcity with abundance often doesn’t satisfy us in the ways we hope. My dad is beyond retirement age, but he continues to work. Partly because he wants to. Partly because he’s not sure he has saved enough. There’s also the sense that many of us have that it’s possible we have too much. In those cases, our abundance turns on us, our excess becoming a source of guilt.

During the early 90s, I worked at a Bible college as a residence hall director. As a perk of the job, the college provided me with a small, two-bedroom apartment in the residence hall nearly free-of-cost. While the space was smaller than most apartments I had lived in, students coming and going from their own tiny dorm rooms were envious of my relatively “large” space. When new friends from China who were in the United States for graduate school visited me in my tiny apartment home, they also commented about how spacious the rooms were. Over time, I began to think that maybe less was more, that maybe I was being greedy by believing I had “needed” more space all those years before.

When it came time to leave that job and the campus apartment, I set about finding a new home near the church where I had been hired. With my recent recalibration about the amount of space and amenities I needed, rather than looking for a nice, two-bedroom apartment in a complex with a pool and clubhouse—one I could easily have afforded—I chose a tiny studio apartment on the upper floor of a guesthouse. The property manager—a single mom—rented the house at the front of the lot. A drummer who gave lessons to children during the evenings lived next door.

The entire apartment was one room—one very small room—with a closet, a kitchenette, and an enclosed bathroom that barely contained a commode, sink, and shower stall. There was no air conditioner; the furnace smelled like it had a gas leak; and the electrical service was so outdated I couldn’t get renter’s insurance. The mini fridge in the kitchenette barely held enough food for the week, and only one of the two burners on the stovetop worked. But, it allowed me to save some money each month, and with the square footage I had to myself, I still was occupying more space than most people in the world.

Except I only stayed for a few months. While I was there, 9/11 happened, the job turned out to be a bad fit, and after several weeks of being hot then cold and more cramped than I ever remembered, I left the job, the apartment, the whole small life I had carved out for myself.

Despite other extenuating circumstances, I attribute much of my angst to the scarcity I had forced on myself.

In his Forbes essay, “The Scarcity Fallacy: Is Less Really More?” Tim Maurer talks about recent trends to downsize, simplify, and declutter. While those movements are admirable, he believes they may not be accomplishing what they set out to do.

“Like anorexia, a deep scarcity conviction cannot be satisfied. One’s possessions can always be leaner. One can always have less,” Maurer contends. “While the addiction of the day certainly leans toward the acquisition of more, we can also fall unhealthily in love with having less.”

Is Grace a Zero-Sum Game?

The limitations and opportunities of scarcity, both real and imagined, find their way into all areas of our lives: from the supply and demand that makes our gasoline prices fluctuate, to our annual performance appraisals that make the corner office more or less a possibility for us. We squeeze hours of activity into a few free minutes, and we fill our children’s lives and resumes to compete for the coveted spots on travel teams and elite universities.

All this scarcity casts shadows on our spiritual lives, too. We mistakenly believe God’s love and his blessings are doled out in a zero-sum game. If my friend has what I want then it means I don’t and never will. So we work harder, and seek to earn for ourselves what hasn’t been given. Or we sense false limits to grace that make us feel forgotten and overlooked. So we shout louder, and wrangle for attention. We struggle with our limits, but we sense abundance is not the answer, either.

Is there is a better way?

Rethinking Scarcity

“We miss the mark to presume that contentment will be found through either the path of less or more, scarcity or abundance. Indeed, it may have little to do with either,” Maurer concludes.

The Apostle Paul says it this way: “I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me.”

We are rethinking scarcity at The High Calling, attempting to understand how both real and perceived scarcity influences our thoughts and behaviors.

  • In “Rethinking Scarcity: Infinite Grace in Finite Settings,” Diane Paddison says, “As Christians in the workplace, we have the freedom to reject the scarcity mindset because our ultimate goals and purposes are not tied to any finite resource but to an infinite God.”
  • In “Rethinking Scarcity: A Legacy of Abundance,” Sarah Bessey tells us that “as the Church, we are called to exist in a prophetic community, an alternative to the narratives of the world living out the Kingdom of God in our right-now lives. There isn’t scarcity, not really: there is more than enough if we live like our Jesus.”
  • In “Rethinking Scarcity: Creativity from Constraint,” Carolyn Givens explores the ways artists thrive when resources are limited. “The limitations that the economy and technology have enforced upon the music industry may be the best thing could have happened because, in part, the independent artists’ appeal lies in the fact that the stories their songs tell are real stories—of struggles, of joy, of pain, of glory,” she writes.

A Bigger Conversation

We aren’t the only ones tackling this issue. In addition to the resources listed above, here are other ways people are thinking about scarcity:

  • In this video interview with Rich Rivera, pastor of Restoration Community Church in South Bronx, he talks about the city’s musical roots and how they are building a church from that same sense of scarcity. “This is the same community that birthed hip-hop, and if you look at it, hip-hop really is a culture that was born out of scarcity,” Rivera says. “So since there wasn’t any instruments, they took turntables. People didn’t have vocal lessons, so they spoke over the music, and I think, like, culturally, our church is like that. We’re being really creative with the little bit that we have.”
  • In the article “The Psychology of Scarcity,” Melanie Greenberg, Ph.D. offers five tips for overcoming the scarcity mentality, including taking preemptive measures. “Make a list when you go to the supermarket or program automatic appointment reminders and deposits into savings accounts. Don't take your credit card to the mall—take a frugal friend with you instead. Put the cookies on the top shelf or give them away before starting your healthy living plan.”
  • In this Economonitor blog post, “Living with Water Scarcity: A Refreshing Take on a Hot-Button Issue,” economist Ed Dolan reviews David Zetlan’s book about water scarcity, and how this one area of resource constraint can serve as a model for how all scarcity functions. “Think of this not as a book about water, but as a parable that uses water to tell the larger story of living with scarcity.”

Rethinking scarcity means not only understanding what resources are limited but also identifying the ways those constraints can either hold us back or apply the pressure we need to thrive, particularly when it comes to following Christ. Our scarcity doesn’t have to define us. Instead, we can allow it to refine us, making us more like Jesus in the process.


Rethinking Scarcity

We all know the pinch of limited resources. Whether it's a crunch for time, a shrinking bank account, or a competitive workplace, we often experience life dissatisfied and craving more. At The High Calling, we are Rethinking Scarcity, attempting to understand how both real and perceived scarcity influences our thoughts and behaviors. We also will explore scarcity’s influence in our decisions and how reimagining constraints not only changes the way we respond to our circumstances, but ultimately may change our circumstances themselves. Join us for the conversation, and while you're at it, why not share some of these same resources via email or social media with friends or colleagues who also might also be interested.

Image by Keith Bacongco. Used with permission. Sourced via Flickr.