Research Reframes Discussions about Scarcity

Research Reframes Discussions about Scarcity

The human experiences of poverty and scarcity are inextricably linked. Poverty forces people to cope with critically low resources, and their limited resources force them to make unwelcome tradeoffs in areas such as housing, food, healthcare, and other material needs on a daily basis.

However, if poverty and scarcity are truly intertwined in daily life, why are they so frequently studied as separate research topics? Why do significant advances in the study of poverty and scarcity tend to emerge in isolated tribes of scholars who rarely share ideas or build on each other’s work to achieve greater impact? Furthermore, why is the resource scarcity lens primarily focused on understanding the experiences of relatively affluent people?

Midway through the pandemic, associate professor of marketing Chris Blocker and his colleagues were plagued by these nagging questions. He and his colleagues, who are members of a multidisciplinary guild of poverty scholars, began probing these questions for answers. The group members’ expertise ranges from sociologically based qualitative research on consumer poverty to experimental and psychological approaches to investigating human scarcity.

They identified critical gaps in how scarcity research investigates the effects of extremely low resources on people living in poverty. Whereas Blocker and other poverty researchers frequently examine cultural insights into enduring poverty deprivations such as homelessness, scarcity researchers typically focus on point-in-time scarcity experiences with people who have their basic needs met, such as product availability challenges. There was clearly a chance to bridge the gap by cross-pollinating ideas to have a greater impact on people experiencing various types of scarcity.

People who are experiencing episodic scarcity are constantly above and below consumption adequacy, and there’s something distinctive about that uncertainty. People suffering from chronic scarcity find it difficult to recover. Individuals who are able to break free from certain cycles are often exceptional.

Chris Blocker

“How can we bring these tribes dealing with scarcity and poverty together?” said Blocker. “How can we integrate big ideas so that researchers, policymakers, and leaders studying scarcity and poverty can communicate with one another? What frameworks can we develop that draw on the robust findings of scarcity research while also being relevant to people who are experiencing significant material poverty?”

Blocker, CSU College of Business associate marketing professor Jonathan Zhang, and their coauthors eventually developed a new framework with dynamic extensions to bridge the gap between consumer poverty and scarcity. Their ideas provide future researchers with the opportunity to collaborate to push scarcity and poverty research in new directions for greater impact. Their framework, “Rethinking Scarcity and Poverty: Building Bridges for Shared Insight and Impact,” is published in the Journal of Consumer Psychology.

Building an integrated model of resource scarcity

By constructing an integrated model of human scarcity and setting up a provocative research agenda, Blocker, Zhang and their coauthors address the differences between various disciplines’ views on resource constraints to find common ground and build a structure that allows researchers to easily compare very different forms of scarcity. This required building a theoretical framework that addresses the many ways individuals experience resource shortages, classifying them by scarcity duration and scarcity intensity.

Some people experience scarcity for short periods of time, with little disruption to their daily lives—low intensity—a type of deprivation that Blocker, Zhang, and their coauthors refer to as incidental scarcity. People dealing with this type of scarcity aren’t usually struggling to meet basic needs, and most of their encounters with scarcity don’t disrupt their way of life.

Shoppers who resort to alternative, but still sufficient, brands and products during supply chain shortages, or people working long hours on a short-term project who struggle to find time to meet demands, are examples of people facing incidental scarcity. Scarcity researchers have traditionally studied people who are experiencing incidental scarcity.

Research redefines conversations around scarcity

“In many cases, the participants within experimental scarcity research live well above what we call ‘consumption adequacy,'” Blocker said. “They have their basic needs met, have jobs with health insurance and have a safety net of people that can support them in the event of significant setbacks.”

Another classification in the framework, conditional scarcity, describes individuals experiencing low-impact scarcity over a long duration. These are individuals who possess what researchers term consumption adequacy—the ability to put a roof over their heads and food on the table—but who may be looking at strategies to extend their grocery bill or purchase items at thrift stores and are often living paycheck to paycheck. These are families who experience short-term unemployment of a parent, an unexpected expense that puts strain on their budget or other situational difficulty. Many people who experience conditional scarcity are on the bubble of economic distress but manage to live reasonably stable lives as long as their conditions don’t change.

Should conditions worsen and those individuals lose access to thinly stretched resources, they may fall into a category the new framework characterizes as episodic scarcity. Their financial, time management, physical security or other resources are temporarily insufficient for consumption adequacy, and they may briefly be homeless or relying on other services to meet minimal needs. The impacts of scarcity are high and stressful for them, and they experience those effects intermittently.

Finally, chronic scarcity occurs when people are subjected to prolonged periods of severe scarcity and are unable to achieve adequate consumption. These are people who are experiencing long-term homelessness, food insecurity, physical safety threats, and a struggle to meet basic needs.

“People who are experiencing episodic scarcity are constantly above and below consumption adequacy, and there’s something distinctive about that uncertainty,” Blocker explained. “People suffering from chronic scarcity find it difficult to recover. Individuals who are able to break free from certain cycles are often exceptional.”

Adjusting to shocks

The new framework also acknowledges that people’s lives influence how they experience and recover from economic and personal shocks that can cause scarcity. Financial instabilities are introduced by events such as a chronic illness, a layoff, or an increase in rent, and little is known about the differential effects of shocks—for example, a natural disaster—on individuals with varying levels of tangible and intangible slack. A person’s ability to navigate shocks may also be influenced by their ability to obtain assistance, such as support services, or by the amount of grace that creditors, bosses, and other members of one’s social circle are willing to extend to them.

Finally, this framework clarifies under-recognized concepts in scarcity and poverty research. It provides new research directions in which scarcity and poverty researchers can build on each other’s work, and it ultimately creates pathways for creative interventions and policy that help people escape chronic and episodic poverty.

“We hope that by incorporating scarcity models, we will be able to activate the tribes of scholars who are investigating these issues in novel and impactful ways. Shared lenses and frameworks serve as a catalyst for research to help people living in poverty understand the scarcity they face” Blocker explains. “At the end of the day, policymakers working on poverty alleviation, businesspeople, and researchers should collaborate to create solutions for real problems.”