Tuesday, May 25, 2010

wow...the NYT on "why the poor are poor"

From Nicholas Kristof in the NYT (hat tip: Blue County in a Red State)...

Kristof often does interesting and provocative work-- some of which I've blogged about.

There’s an ugly secret of global poverty, one rarely acknowledged by aid groups or U.N. reports. It’s a blunt truth that is politically incorrect, heartbreaking, frustrating and ubiquitous:

It’s that if the poorest families spent as much money educating their children as they do on wine, cigarettes and prostitutes, their children’s prospects would be transformed. Much suffering is caused not only by low incomes, but also by shortsighted private spending decisions by heads of households.

That probably sounds sanctimonious, haughty and callous, but it’s been on my mind while traveling through central Africa with a college student on my annual win-a-trip journey....

Kristof details one story of a poor family where a child is about to be kicked out of the govt school for not paying fees, is behind on their rent, and has no mosquito net (despite losing two children to malaria).

They say they just can’t afford the $6 cost of a net. Nor can they afford the $2.50-a-month tuition for each of their three school-age kids....But Mr. Obamza and his wife, Valerie, do have cellphones and say they spend a combined $10 a month on call time. In addition, Mr. Obamza goes drinking several times a week at a village bar, spending about $1 an evening on moonshine. By his calculation, that adds up to about $12 a month — almost as much as the family rent and school fees combined.

I asked Mr. Obamza why he prioritizes alcohol over educating his kids. He looked pained.

Other villagers said that Mr. Obamza drinks less than the average man in the village (women drink far less). Many other men drink every evening, they said, and also spend money on cigarettes....

Two M.I.T. economists, Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo, found that the world’s poor typically spend about 2 percent of their income educating their children, and often larger percentages on alcohol and tobacco: 4 percent in rural Papua New Guinea, 6 percent in Indonesia, 8 percent in Mexico. The indigent also spend significant sums on soft drinks, prostitution and extravagant festivals.

Look, I don’t want to be an unctuous party-pooper. But I’ve seen too many children dying of malaria for want of a bed net that the father tells me is unaffordable, even as he spends larger sums on liquor. If we want Mr. Obamza’s children to get an education and sleep under a bed net — well, the simplest option is for their dad to spend fewer evenings in the bar.

Because there’s mounting evidence that mothers are more likely than fathers to spend money educating their kids, one solution is to give women more control over purse strings and more legal title to assets. Some aid groups and U.N. agencies are working on that.

Another approach is microsavings, helping poor people save money when banks aren’t interested in them. It’s becoming increasingly clear that the most powerful part of microfinance isn’t microlending but microsavings.

Microsavings programs, organized by CARE and other organizations, work to turn a consumption culture into a savings culture. The programs often keep household savings in the women’s names, to give mothers more say in spending decisions, and I’ve seen them work in Africa, Latin America and Asia.

Well-meaning humanitarians sometimes burnish suffering to make it seem more virtuous and noble than it often is. If we’re going to make more progress, and get kids like the Obamza children in school and under bed nets, we need to look unflinchingly at uncomfortable truths — and then try to redirect the family money now spent on wine and prostitution.


First, imagine someone saying this about the poor in America. If this is true in Africa, how much more so in America with its cigarettes, booze, cell phones, fingernails, cable TV, etc.?

Second, this reminds me of what I'm studying in Genesis-- that God works with Abraham to educate him in "a new way": (proper) patriarchy. As Kass notes, patriarchy must be "properly defined so that improper patriarchy can be properly condemned". This involves good marriage and good parenting. As the Biblical and NYT stories indicate, that's not going to happen on its own.

Third, I'm all for having better public policies-- and changing incentives will help somewhat. But the bottom line is that Mr. Obamza needs a heart transplant that is best provided by embracing the grace of God and his "(still) new way".


At May 25, 2010 at 10:58 AM , Blogger Unknown said...

I'm working on a series on Abraham, can you send me your notes?


At May 25, 2010 at 10:58 AM , Blogger Unknown said...

That Eric from the previous comment is Eric Peterson...

At May 25, 2010 at 12:14 PM , Blogger Eric Schansberg said...

You can find a recent version of my notes here:

But since I'm currently teaching Gen 13 and bringing in some big new (Jewish) resources, I'm updating them often and significantly these days. If you want something more up-to-date, shoot me an email.

I'd also strongly recommend picking up Kass' commentary. It's ridiculously amazing!


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