A small town in Montana, razed by the wildfires and the uncertainty of the American dream, is the home of a small working-class family that stands on the thin line separating the “dream” from the “fire” in Paul Dano’s drama. The struggle of a teenage boy, his depressed mother, and his unemployed father, is presented to the audience through meticulous photography and remarkable acting from Carey Mulligan and Jake Gyllenhaal. With this debut, Paul Dano and Zoe Kazan portray the struggle of a timeless working-class family and the fragility of its daily life. Why do the adult members of this family make the choices they make? How is it possible that there is no escape from scarcity envisioned for them?
This article will try to relate the story of this postwar family with the psychological theory on scarcity traps that offers potential explanations for the behaviour of the poor. A behaviour that has been deemed irrational but whose complexity is still on the process of being understood.
Imagine that you are working on a large manufacturing line, tightening screws mechanically every second of your shift. Imagine as well that a pile of unpaid bills waits for you on top of your night table – a pile that keeps growing every week. Your thoughts would rationally be dedicated to reducing that pile. How can I find help? Is there an additional job I can fit in the last hours of my day? Am I missing a distant family member willing to give me a hand? How am I going to pay for text books for my children this year? Should we find a cheaper grocery store? Is it reasonable for me to ask for an advance? Then – you lose your concentration and miss one screw, the product falls apart and you find yourself fired.
It seems unfair to attribute poverty to bad or irrational choices, as decision-making appears to be negatively affected when our life is burdened with very limited resources. The downfall for the film’s characters starts when Jerry (Jake Gyllenhaal) gets fired without a fair justification and is left with only a two-week payment as compensation. Anger, frustration, the pressure of responsibility and the fear of losing his seemingly comfortable low middle-class life create a mental “budget constraint”, which causes Jerry to lose self-control and reduce his attention on important aspects of his life. With limited mental resources left, it is easy to make bad choices in many domains. As a consequence, Joe (Ed Oxenbould) and Jeanette (Carey Mulligan) find themselves without a father and husband respectively, as Jerry decides to take a precarious job fighting wildfires that engulf the region. Jeanette, devastated by the irreversible fate of her marriage and suffocated by the ball and chain of her expected role as wife and mother, decides to twist her life in a liberating but again, severely constrained and harmful way. Banerjee & Duflo (2011) try to empirically question the mainstream generalizations used to justify poverty. Instead they offer insights on the incentives that lie behind poor people’s decisions. Their answer does not have to do with irrationality but with how lack of resources and the subsequent limited attention may affect our ability to make certain choices. Shiv & Fedorikhin (1999) present evidence on how consumer decision making is affected by available mental resources. In their experiment, individuals that were tasked with remembering a 7-digit number (which simulates a mental burden) were more likely to make decisions based on affect (emotions) rather than cognition (evaluating consequences). Alternatively, individuals tasked with remembering a 2-digit number were able to pick the cognitive alternative more frequently. Can we consider poverty as the constant pressure of remembering a number with a lot of digits? If this is the case, scarcity would lead to limited attention and control, which would force individuals to engage with small problems, neglecting important decisions thus making mistakes conducive to greater scarcity.
During one of the most heart-breaking scenes of the film, Warren Miller (Bill Camp), a rich and beloved veteran and businessman, who uses the remaining parts of this broken family for his own benefit, explains to Jeanette the reasons behind his economic success: He won due to the mediocrity and mistakes of others. To which Jeanette, in a lucid awakening, replies: “I refuse to accept that the poor will always remain poor and the rich will remain rich”. But Jeanette is trapped by scarcity while Warren collects benefits from poor people’s mistakes. Dano shows us, through Joe’s portraits of the members of this small town that they are not the only citizens forgotten and trapped in scarcity. Warren Miller had profited from many mistakes.
What we witness in Wildlife has relevant policy implications. Incorporating behavioural economics on the strategies for poverty alleviation can help us to understand not only its causes but also how to get rid of perennial scarcity traps. The origin for some of the political challenges of today are also reflected in Dano’s great directorial debut. Hopefully, a movie screen can push us to acknowledge the irrationality of deeming the poor as irrational.
Ignacio Bañares Sánchez is a second year MPA student, originally from Spain. He studied in Madrid and Chicago and holds a Bachelor’s and Master’s degree in Industrial and Energy Engineering. His academic background previous to LSE is focused on sustainability and energy challenges. He worked as an Engineer and Economic Analyst at Accenture and the European Central Bank. After the discovery of a late vocation, he started his studies in Public and Economic Policy at the London School of Economics.