What is Bandwidth Poverty and How Does it Affect the Poor?

Some of the links in this post are from our sponsors. Read our disclosure to see how we make money.

Bandwidth Poverty

I was listening to this great NPR piece the other day when I was driving home from work. While there are many people who don’t appreciate public radio, I am not one of them. I love the stories along with the information I get from NPR. I do admit I used to laugh at some of my friends for listening to NPR, but now I am on the train as well. It is very enlightening and can really expand your knowledge base.

Anyway, they were running a story on All Things Considered dealing with poverty. Not just a regular poverty story though. One that really got my interest and made my ears perk up. They were talking about bandwidth poverty.

What is Bandwidth Poverty?


The reason I was so fascinated with this NPR piece was because I use the term “bandwidth” on a regular basis. In business, you can use it to describe how much you have going on or how many resources it is going to take to complete a task. I also use the term in my own life and business. When I know something is going to take a lot of time, I ask myself how much bandwidth I have available. I can only take on so much, so if I exceed my allotted bandwidth, then the task doesn’t get finished.

This premise of bandwidth also refers to a state of poverty. Typically when you are poor, you are focusing on taking care of a few needs at a time, such as eating, making money to pay bills, or finding a place to sleep. You are living in the now, just trying to get through the day. Most of your cognitive processing goes to those said tasks. You don’t have anything left over (bandwidth) to think about what is beyond that day. You can’t think for the future.

This is essentially bandwidth poverty. When you have to focus on these overwhelming decisions, you can’t think beyond that point. When you need to find food, pay your rent, keep your kids clothed, and all of the other aspects, you can’t think beyond those things. Since the poor typically have to face those same questions day in and day out, they have no room to think about the future. They can’t think about saving money for retirement or getting an education to get out of their situation. They can also get consumed with certain thoughts which lead them to make bad decisions or forget stuff they need to do, like paying their bills.

Why Bandwidth Poverty Makes Sense to Me


I have heard many reasons for why people are poor and why we have a poverty issue in our nation. Most of them only focus on the government not providing enough help or companies not providing living wages. While those are valid issues, I have never heard a piece about the cognitive aspects of poverty. I especially have never heard it referred to as “bandwidth.” This term resonates with me. I get it and I see it everyday. I just see it on a different level.

I have no qualms to say I am not poor. I work extremely hard to provide for myself and my family. I also was given some great opportunities through how I was raised and through contacts I met over the years. That being said, I do understand bandwidth. When I am working and more and more stuff piles onto my plate, I can get a little unsettled. That is when I start making mistakes. I just wrote a few days ago about about how stress and lack of sleep cost me $10,000. While that was all about business, it is the same premise.

When I am working hard to get a task done for a client or a new project for my blog, I can be a little short-sided. I get too focused on those tasks and I lose sight of what might be coming up or what the future holds. Yes, my decisions aren’t based on if I will be able to eat tonight or not, but I am showing you how I can understand where this NPR piece is going. This has opened my eyes a little more to the struggles of the poor. This is a side to the poverty story I can get behind.

When you can’t think beyond the day, how can you expect to save any money? How can you try to get your finances in order when all you can do is push through the day and get your immediate needs met? When you can’t look to the future, you will struggle making ends meet and planning for the road ahead. Planning and execution are big parts of personal finance, but when you can’t meet one, the other falls apart.


So, what do you think about the notion of “bandwidth” poverty? Does it make sense to you that some people will be affected by this due to how much they have to worry about? In what areas of life is your ‘bandwidth’ being maxed out?



Photo courtesy of: Bhernandez

The following two tabs change content below.
Grayson is the owner of Debt Roundup and Empowered Shopper. He also co-owns Sprout Wealth and Eyes on the Dollar. After going to battle and winning against consumer debt, he decided it was time to learn how to use credit wisely and grow his wealth. He discusses all things personal finance and is not afraid of being controversial. He also is a freelance writer and blog manager.

Latest posts by Grayson Bell (see all)


  • I really do think that makes sense. Actually, I feel that way in my own life in some ways (none of which relate to poverty). For instance, I have a ton of long-term plans for my websites but am never able to work on them because I am too busy with writing jobs and taking care of my kids. Sometimes it is all I can do to get the stuff done that is necessary, let alone work on any long-term stuff.

  • This, to me, relates to what you wrote the other day about the scarcity mindset. I think one feeds off the other, and only makes a struggling situation worse. Interesting post, Grayson!

  • Interesting concept. I can definitely see how big picture thinking and planning can get compromised by pressing day to day needs and concerns. Everyone is guilty of it.

  • This does make a lot of sense. I think a lot more research actually needs to go into the study of the poor and poverty. It’s easy to say the poor are lazy or choose not to get ahead, etc. But the more research I read, the more complex the issue actually becomes.

  • What an interesting way to conceptualize a real problem. I must admit though, that while I am poor now, I make time to dream about what I want from my future and then to plan on ways to get their. With the help of a new job, I am certain to realize at least some of those plans.

    • Grayson Bell says:

      You are probably an exception more than the rule. I believe others are really struggling just to answer today’s questions, so they can’t focus on tomorrow’s.

  • We use that term bandwidth a lot too when it comes to our line of work. I once watched a show on MTV’s True Life about living in poverty. It was really sad how all they could focus on was where the next meal was coming from. Not even like a week’s worth of groceries! I was “struggling” myself at the time, but nowhere near this level. It’s really eye-opening. I agree that it’s very hard to see beyond the now in that type of situations…it would take a very strong-minded person.

  • Hey Grayson, excellent post. I’m with you. I’ve heard all the “Government not helping” “companies not paying” stories, but it is interesting to think about the cognitive aspects of poverty. I use the term bandwidth all the time; and bandwidth poverty really makes sense as a term. Thanks!

  • This reminds me of how human evolved. At first, we had no time for silly tasks such as art or enlightenment. Once we became farmers, we had time to pursue ventures beyond our basic needs.

  • I have never heard of it this week, but it does give you a different perspective to understand those living in poverty. I see it in a small way in what I do with some clients. By the time they pay bills and buy food, there is really nothing left over, and it is a difficult mental barrier to overcome. When this happens, though, this is where the harder work comes in. I have one client who is like this and she can make more money, but she is tired from the work she already does. And I told her she has the choice to get physically more tired from doing more work or mentally more exhausted from worrying about the bills. It’s her choice.

  • I like the terminology. I definitely have a tendency to let the day to day get in the way of the bigger picture. I can see how this would be daily struggle for those worrying about how to put food on the table each night.

  • Interesting post. I does make a lot of sense. I wasn’t poor by any means, but when I was in debt and living paycheck to paycheck, all I could think about was the next day or the next pay period. I never really thought about the future and what I needed to do now to get there. It turned out that I was just irresponsible, but there are millions of people who are just struggling because their lives are rough.

    • Grayson Bell says:

      I had the same rationale when I was in debt. I was just trying to figure out how to pay my bills. Once I started looking at the future was when I went to making more money and changing my life.

  • Fascinating, Grayson. I was unfamiliar with bandwidth being used in that manner, but it makes a lot of sense to me. When your sole focus is finding your next meal and keeping a roof over your head, it is very hard to focus (or even contemplate) the future. All you time and energy is spent on surviving right now. It does make you look at poverty a bit differently and wonder how we can help increase their bandwidth so they can get ahead.

  • bericm says:

    Definitely a great way to express what Maslow was getting at with his “hierarchy of needs”, especially as it pertains to our relationships. We do not progress/grow until some very fundamental needs have been satisfied, “Physiological”, “Safety”. Me, I call it headspace; can’t even consider “that” until “this” is done.

  • interesting, I have never heard bandwidth used in that way before. Lately, in real life circles, I have been hearing the term “margin” in reference to both time and money. The idea being that you need to include some margin, or space, in your life for both.

  • I think my blog has been maxing out my bandwith for quite some time. There are many things I’d like to do to improve my blog for the long-term, but it seems like all the short-term tasks (getting content written and scheduled, commenting, etc.) takes up all my bandwith. There’s only so many hours outside of your 9-5 to dedicate to a side hustle.

  • Amy says:

    Very interesting concept, and it definitely makes sense to me.

  • I’m always saying I have no bandwidth in terms of time to do things so I understand the term bandwidth poverty now that you’ve explained it. For people who are truly in poverty and can’t save or plan for the future, because they are just worrying about today, we need the social safety net for them. For people who are being careless with their money, they need to be educated and learn to to the right thing.

    • Grayson Bell says:

      I agree there. Our social safety nets are supposed to be there for those who really need them. Unfortunately, they are easily gamed and the system is really broken.

  • Abigail says:

    There’s actually a fair amount of pieces dealing with the psychology of poverty, though I’ve never heard it referred to as bandwidth.

    There’s something similar when you have health problems. As a depressive with chronic fatigue, I can get caught up in a single issue while other money issues languish. Or I have to pay more for an item because I don’t have the energy to go where it’s cheaper. Or everything goes to hell because I can’t cope for a bit.

    Point being, health problems — mental or physical — can bog you down in the “now” similar to (though not as badly as) poverty.

  • Susan Taylor says:

    VERY interesting article. I love the idea of more study going into the cognitive aspects of poverty. How much more empowering it would be for those in poverty to learn ways of thinking that could help them take even baby steps toward a better life. All the talk of the solutions coming from outside them keeps everyone focused on a problem, but maybe not the main problem, and definitely not a sustainable solution.

    I also appreciated this article because it gave me an appreciation for how everyone deals with having enough bandwidth; that I’m not unique in that area.

    Finally, it reminded me of an old pamphlet I have read called “Tyranny of the Urgent.” While the focus of it was our ability to choose to focus on the important, rather than the urgent, the urgent needs in poverty really are a tyranny that demand all of their attention. But how exciting it is to envision tools that could make a difference to those experiencing that tyranny.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *