Archive for the ‘Poor’ Category

Service of Being Blind to Poverty

Sunday, May 14th, 2017



I consider myself observant, empathetic and sensitive but unintentionally I’ve been at fault when it comes to being blind to poverty. Here’s just one of many instances that still haunt me. I was planning a visit to a city for business before Yelp and Google existed and asked a couple what their favorite restaurant was as I wanted to invite them for dinner. They said diets prevented them from going out to eat which is why they didn’t have a favorite. I later learned that they didn’t go out because they were in dire financial straits.



I had a college roommate whose family was affluent. She stood on every picket line and joined any and all protests and I felt she had real compassion for the less fortunate. Yet she didn’t realize that the reason one of our dorm members didn’t eat on Sunday night when the dining room was closed was because she didn’t have the money for even a hotdog.

Ivanka Trump is only the latest wealthy high profile person to pontificate and share advice in a book “Women Who Work: Rewriting the Rules for Success.” The subject is life/work balance. Apart from the reviews that trashed the book, I’m not rushing out to buy copies for friends who are stretched to the limit juggling jobs, kids and board positions who don’t work for their fathers and whose excellent salaries don’t reach the ankles of Ms. Trump’s income and the support it affords. In addition to paying for the best nanny care, should she want cooks and social secretaries to keep track of play dates and after school activities, all would be available at the snap of her smartphone. My friends and colleagues could teach Ms. Trump a thing or three. She would have done better interviewing them for her book.

FuneralSheryl Sandberg’s second book, “Option B,” is about dealing with loss. The Facebook COO’s husband died suddenly leaving her to raise young children alone. Her grief is poignant and her advice heartfelt and well meant, I’m sure, and writing about her pain was no doubt therapeutic. I saw a snippet of an interview with her on “60 Minutes.” Nevertheless as I heard her speak this jumped to mind: Can she fathom the circumstance of a poor widow with an hourly part-time job faced with losing her home, with no access to childcare and with insufficient resources to think past cobbling together something for the kids to eat tonight? Would a high powered technology executive’s thoughts resonate with those caught up in survival mode with little if any time to grieve, console the children or even think?

Have you been inadvertently poverty blind? Have you observed instances of such blindness?





Service of Smart Frugality

Thursday, February 25th, 2016

pinching pennies

I was drawn to Sendhil Mullainathan’s Wall Street Journal article “Pinching Pennies in the Right Places,” because according to this Harvard professor of economics, my thinking, while intuitive, is wrong. Not surprised: I almost failed economics in college. I ended up passing the course by figuring out the answer and writing the opposite. On the other hand, what he wrote makes sense. Maybe I’d have aced his class.

He shared two instances where you’re at a store and the salesperson tells you that another branch 30 minutes away has what you want for less. One item costs $50 and would be $40 for the same model. The other item costs $400 and you could get it for $385.

20 percent off“Research by Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky the psychologists whose work helped spawn behavioral economics, suggests that people are more likely to make the trip for the $40 headphones than for the $385 speakers,” wrote Mullainathan. That would be a mistake. “In each case it will take 30 minutes to save some money. But with the headphones, you save $10; with the speakers, you save $15.” He continued: “It’s as if you had two identical job offers, but one paid $20 an hour and the other $30. Yet you consistently chose the lower-paying job.”

He observed that people spend chunks of time finding the best deal on a pair of jeans and none on the fees charged by mutual funds for example. “Do Consumers Make Too Much Effort to Save on Cheap Items and Too Little to Save on Expensive Items?” is the title of the paper of Ben-Gurion University economist Ofer H. Azar. Mullainathan’s answer is “Yes.”

piggy bankThere is an exception according to Anuj K. Shah from the University of Chicago who conducted research with Mullainathan and Princeton psychology professor Eldar Shafir. “Poorer people tend to value a dollar more consistently, irrespective of the context. It is not simply that those with less money pinch more pennies; it is that they are compelled to value those pennies in absolute rather than relative terms…A dollar saved is a dollar to be spent elsewhere, not merely a piece of token accounting.”

Mullainathan advises: “When it comes to money, stop looking at relative values and start looking at absolutes. Dollars, not percentages, matter. In this case, the well-off can learn something about money management from the poor.”

How much would you have to save to travel for 30 minutes? Are you, like most, driven more by the percentage of a discount—which was 20 percent off the $50 headphones and 3.75 percent off the $400 speakers–than by the amount of money saved?

Driving in traffic

Service of Ka-Ching

Wednesday, September 15th, 2010


I voted in the New York Primary yesterday and was blown away by the new equipment and procedure. I heard the new system was either five or 10 years in the planning and cost multi millions of dollars. If I woke up this morning and someone told me I had until Friday to come up with a system, it would have been better.

All I could think of was “What’s the back-story? Who lobbied whom to get this deal?”lobbyist2

We used to walk into a booth, close a curtain, click some levers and out. The type was nice and big and at eye level.

I was handed a sheet of paper-It was very long and thin, and didn’t look like a standard size:  Ka-ching to the paper provider and the printer.

8thgradersI was sent to a booth that looked as though it had been made in shop by 8th graders. There was a pen [ka-ching to the pen vendor] and a plastic magnifier [ka-ching] because the print was extremely small. In NYC, the instructions are written in several languages which they don’t have to be in other parts of the state, but this takes up space. Formatting is key.

Instead, the ballot is poorly designed and very hard to figure out. The formatting got a zero grade. I think that those 8th graders might have done a better job.

I filled in the little dots [back to my SAT testing days] and walked to one of two scanners. The scanner attendant stood up to show me how to input the ballot. I was shocked and asked for confirmation-I had to slip in my ballot facing up! Talk about privacy? Don’t tell me nobody looks: The attendants had to confirm that voters didn’t mark the dots with a check or an x.

What happened to green sensibilities-tons of paper we never used before? And who is storing all these paper ballots now? [Ka-ching to the storage place.]

About 10 percent of voters showed up in New York for this primary. On WOR Radio 710 this morning, I heard that in some districts, the scanners ran into trouble. The scanner is set on a trashcan-like object that catches and stores the ballots. But in one district, in spite of the light turnout, the can was full and backed up the scanner. There were no spare cans available.

Mayor Bloomberg was beside himself because some districts were four hours late in opening up. “That is a royal screw-up, and it’s completely unacceptable,” he said.

I was going to call this column back to the future. I feel that this procedure has set voting procedure in New York decades back. The waste of paper, alone, makes me shiver. It smacks of loving hands at home, too many steps and no room to accommodate voters in the spaces they now use to vote such as school gymnasiums, church and synagogue basements.

Almost nobody was at the polling place last night when I voted, and yet I could hardly negotiate all the sign-in tables, voting cubbies that took up the center of the room and scanner. On a busy voting day, the synagogue basement is jammed with people. Where will they go? How will they move to the various stations much less line up? Will we be building places to accommodate voters or will we all be going to Madison Square Garden and Yankee Stadium?

If you vote in New York, how did you feel about the experience? Can you think of other instances in your life where new-and-improved turned out to be two steps back? 


Service of Proof

Monday, November 30th, 2009

I was a teen when I first became aware of what Jason Zweig covered in The Wall Street Journal on November 19– “How to Ignore the Yes-Man in Your Head.”  He wrote: “…your own mind acts like a compulsive yes-man who echoes whatever you want to believe. Psychologists call the mental gremlin the ‘confirmation bias.'”

As I recall, I’d notice that if I wanted to buy a pair of, say, red shoes, I’d begin to see them  all over town–on the street, subway and in busses. I’d be blown away at how many red shoes there were, even though I’d never before been aware of any.

Zweig’s lead– “A mind is a terrible thing to change,” says it all. He goes on, “You decide gold is a good bet to hedge against inflation, and suddenly the news seems to be teeming with signs of a falling dollar and rising prices down the road.” He quotes Scott Lilienfeld, a psychologist, “We’re all mentally lazy. It’s simply easier to focus our attention on data that supports our hypothesis, rather than to seek out evidence that might disprove it.”

His article leads to a huge discussion as to how best to plan an investment strategy. Never my specialty, these days it challenges me even more.

But don’t newspaper reporters, magazine editors and PR people play the same mind games?

One article from a major newspaper stands out in my mind. As the economy slid last fall, three or four luxury French restaurants opened in New York City and the reporter wrote something such as “Maybe there is no word for ‘recession’ in French.” The slant of the article was that the timing of these restaurants couldn’t be worse and what was with the restaurateurs? But midway through the article the writer noted that it can take a while to find the perfect property in New York City, negotiate the rent and a few years to identify the architect and interior design team to create and build the perfect space. Facts, schmacts, he didn’t change the slant of his story.

I worked for a magazine editor who came in one day saying, “Last night, I went to a wonderful dinner party at a magnificent apartment. The walls were citron. Yellow is obviously in. Let’s do a story on yellow living rooms.”  She launched a feature with this focus group of one. I wish I could remember how hard it was for us to find a yellow living room to photograph that would resonate with our readers. We were so frantic putting out a weekly with skeleton staff and no stories in the bank–the magazine was new–it’s amazing I remember any details.

I’ve also been guilty of thinking I knew where a story would go before researching the facts and making the story work anyway. For a wallpaper client, I planned a feature about what color gurus** select for their office walls, expecting to dot the piece with all sorts of examples to promote the latest colors in my client’s products. [**Some make a living by forecasting colors in different industries.] Turns out, all three experts surrounded themselves in white. They handled so many colors and patterns that they required a neutral background that didn’t distract them. Those were great interviews so I used them anyway and chose white wallpapers as examples.

And how many people quote the Bible to prove their point, even if they take words out of context?

Have you let your preconceived ideas affect decisions in any part of your life to good or ill effect?


Get This Blog Emailed to You:
Enter your Email

Preview | Powered by FeedBlitz

Clicky Web Analytics