Time poverty

Sep 3, 2013

Credit secuble / Flickr

Time is a limited commodity for everyone. The rich, the poor, and almost everyone in between can be over scheduled and overtired. If you are a regular person, you call this ‘life.’ If you are an academic, you call this ‘time poverty.’ 

Living with time poverty and living in ‘actual’ poverty are different things. But time poverty is especially hard if you also struggle with material poverty. Society and social programs are not particularly accommodating.

Being poor is time-consuming

A common image of the poor is that they have ‘nothing but time,’ but this is a stereotype. Many people living in poverty actually face extreme time pressure because money and time are linked resources.

When you have a lot of money you can use it to save time. Dishwashers, washing machines, cleaners, cooks, and babysitters are all part of the vast commercial and social service sector that help the rich save time.

People living in poverty have the opposite experience, spending time in order to save money. For example, some kids wake up at 4:30 a.m. each day and take six buses to get to and from a good school. It takes time but it is more workable than paying for a private school. People who live in poverty – many of whom work in the service sector helping the rich save time – rarely have enough time themselves.

This is not about relaxation

How much time you have directly impacts your opportunities and your well-being.

Research on social mobility shows how important it is to make connections with people across different socio-economic groups. But when you don’t have free time you don’t have the opportunity to meet and connect with others – much less pursue the education or training that could move you up the economic ladder.

The consequences of not having enough time can be dire. Almost five percent of deaths in the US can be directly attributed to poverty.  Time poverty is a big part in this. Jamie Spinney and Hugh Millward, two researchers, argue that “time poverty may be more important than income poverty as a barrier to regular physical activity.” A similar dynamic exists with time, diet, and overall health

Society is remarkably unsympathetic to the pressure faced by people living in poverty. Polly Toynbee – the UK’s equivalent of Barbara Ehrenreich of Nickel and Dimed fame – found that “poor people’s time is regarded as valueless.”

Time poverty and single parents

When counting how many people live in poverty, the US looks at income. Even in Europe, where multidimensional measurements are used, time is rarely included. But incorporating time as a resource might provide valuable information about who needs assistance the most and what kind of assistance would be most useful.

Consider single parents. If we only look at income, a two-parent household with one working parent might have the same resources as a single working parent. Both households have just one income to support the family. But the single parent has far less time available to them and their children and challenges quickly begin to mount.

Clair Vickery, who did the groundbreaking work on time poverty, argues that such a system discriminates against single-parent households by not taking into account their time poverty.

Time poverty and assistance programs

Measuring poverty matters because it determines who deserves assistance. Actually getting assistance is another issue – it takes time. We don’t have to look any further than the lengthy processes required to qualify for assistance and the regular renewal requirements needed to keep it. Our assistance programs often don’t realize that time is a valuable commodity.

In 2011, Michigan acknowledged this. They started a Combined Application Project, MiCAP, intended to simplify the enrollment process for multiple assistance programs. But this application only covers a subset of the population. For example, people who live with a spouse or have a minor child are not eligible for the combined application.

It has been over 35 years since academics first pointed out that time is an important dimension of poverty. Yet, blatantly and latently we continue to ignore how time-consuming poverty is and that poor people’s time is valuable.