Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Wretched of the Earth

Nick Kristof, in this book review, has some very interesting thoughts on poverty in the U.S. and around the world, debunking some myths (I love this line: "I caught myself thinking that the problem is not that the poor riot, but that they don't riot enough").  Not surprisingly, education is key. 
Here are some highlights:

The poor also invest negligible sums in education (about 2 percent of their income), even though more investment in schooling might offer their children a way out of the cycle.

Yet it's much too simple to conclude that their lack of spending on adequate food and education is solely because they don't have the money. Part of it is the way they spend money—7 percent of their spending went for sugar. As the authors write:

A common image of the extremely poor is that they do not get to make many real choices....Yet among the non-food items that the poor spend significant amounts of money on, alcohol and tobacco show up prominently. The extremely poor in rural areas spent 4.1 percent of their budget on tobacco and alcohol in Papua New Guinea, 5.0 percent in Udaipur, India; 6.0 percent in Indonesia and 8.1 percent in Mexico....

But the best single investment to gain long-term dignity is education, and that's the way to break the cycle. As the authors of this article note, one reason for the underinvestment in education is that illiterate parents can't judge what investments in education will pay off.

The pattern of misallocation of resources is confirmed by what I've seen in poor countries. It's routine to visit a family with a severely malnourished child (with consequences for the child's cognition if it survives), and find out that the family has some meager savings—but Dad is off drinking them up at a nearby bar. And this is dispiriting for a man to admit, but it's typically that way: abundant research shows that in poor families, women invest money in food, children, and small businesses—and men squander funds on cigarettes, alcohol, video halls, and prostitution.

We should be clear: one smart way to fight poverty is to empower women (by educating girls, by giving daughters legal rights to inheritance, by promoting banking institutions that give women control over the accounts).

One of the great canards of modern life is that the poor are particularly grasping, always demanding entitlements. In fact, one of the problems in combating poverty is the opposite: the poor are far too willing to acquiesce. Vollmann writes that one of the characteristics of poverty is its invisibility —and he's right, because by and large the poor have been conditioned to retreat to the margins...

Even when middle-class or wealthy families were displaced in, say, New Orleans, they mostly figured out how to get what they needed. For a start, they demanded it. Loudly. Insistently. But the people stuck in the shelters, black and white, were typically not only poorer but also less demanding, less assertive, less skilled in negotiating their way through the system. Poor families in the shelters were neglected precisely because they were suffering so patiently. After that experience, I caught myself thinking that the problem is not that the poor riot, but that they don't riot enough.

Poverty is connected, of course, to race. But in recent years we've learned that it's not exactly race, because blacks from the West Indies and newly arrived immigrants from Africa have often thrived in the US while traditional African-American descendants of slaves are more likely to be stuck in the whirlpool of poverty.

There is, I think, a parallel with the minority of Japan, the burakumin, sometimes called the Untouchables of Japan. The burakumin are not a racial minority but an occupational one: they are the descendants of those who worked with leather, with dead bodies, or with dead animals. But they were no less shunned and discriminated against than American blacks, and when I lived in Japan I sometimes heard Japanese friends tell me that the burakumin "are not real Japanese." A few decades ago, burakumin were rarely invited into ordinary people's homes, they could never work in restaurants, they had little hope of marrying a non-burakumin, and they were almost universally ostracized. Even today, parents sometimes hire private detective agencies to research the backgrounds of their children's fiancés to make sure that burakumin blood does not creep into the family.

The upshot was that burakumin felt excluded from the Japanese social compact, and they fell disproportionately into alcohol, drugs, divorce, and crime. The yakuza, Japan's criminal network, is overwhelmingly composed of burakumin and another ostracized minority, ethnic Koreans. It's hard to avoid the conclusion that when a society excludes a group and treats it as second-class citizens, then the result can be not only poverty as such but also self-destructive cycles of culture and behavior that make escape from poverty all the more difficult.


There is thus no basis for views, often expressed by protesters against globalization and privatization, that these trends have coincided with a rise in global poverty. Most of the poverty reduction happened in Asia, and particularly in China, which has experienced growing integration into the world economy and a rise in market forces.

It's also worth noting that the part of the world that has most withstood the forces of globalization (or simply been ignored) is Africa, where the number of poor people doubled.

The common perception of rising global inequality is true in a sense— but this is largely because entire nations have prospered while others have not; it is not because of rising inequality within poor countries. The gap between the world's wealthiest and poorest people is overwhelmingly accounted for by inequities from one country to another. In contrast, most nations appear to have reduced inequality within their borders (although this is not true of the US).

Education has also proved an excellent investment, and we now know that the most cost-effective way to keep children in school isn't to ban child labor, to pass laws requiring school attendance, or even to build schools. Rather, it's to bribe parents with cash grants for keeping kids in school. Understanding Poverty cites improvements in school attendance rates of 20 percentage points by such programs. A large-scale Indonesian program to spread primary education in the 1970s is estimated to have paid returns equivalent to 10 percent per year...

In the US as well, we have a clearer sense of what policies work. Large-scale income distribution programs, such as welfare and public housing, weren't very successful, and that fed a cynicism and resignation about anti-poverty efforts. But in more recent years we've learned that in the US education is a critical path out of poverty. Early childhood education and intense schooling and tutoring make all the difference. Job training helps. After-school programs help. The earned-income tax credit raises incomes of poor families. These approaches aren't easy or cheap, but they work—and these costs of empowering poor people are cheaper than the alternative of incarcerating them in large numbers.


Wretched of the Earth

By Nicholas D. Kristof

Poor People
by William T. Vollmann

Ecco, 450 pp., $29.95

Understanding Poverty
edited by Abhijit Vinayak Banerjee, Roland Bénabou, and Dilip Mookherjee

Oxford University Press, 443 pp., $35.00 (paper)

No interview haunts me more than a conversation with a Cambodian peasant, Nhem Yen, in 1996. She was forty years old, though she looked much older, and was living with her family in a clearing in the Cambodian jungle. The area was notorious for malaria, but the family members were ambitious and industrious and figured that it was worth the risk to make more money by cutting wood for sale.

Nhem Yen's eldest daughter, who was twenty-four and pregnant with her second child, promptly caught malaria. There was no money to get med-ical treatment (effective drugs would have cost less than $10), and so she died a day after giving birth. That left Nhem Yen looking after five children of her own and two grandchildren.

The family had one mosquito net that could accommodate about three people. Such nets are quite effective against malaria, but they cost $5—and Nhem Yen could not afford to buy any more. So every night, she agonized over which of the children to put under the net and which to leave out. 

"It's very hard to choose," Nhem Yen told me. "But we have no money to buy another mosquito net. We have no choice."

That is the real face of poverty: it is not so much the pain of hunger or the humiliation of rags, but the impossible choices you face. If you can only afford school fees for some of your children, which do you send? If you must choose between medical treatment for Dad, the breadwinner, or for Daughter, the A student, which is it? Do you use your savings to provide a good dowry so Eldest Daughter can get a decent husband, or do you settle for the drunkard who will beat her and instead invest the savings in a food cart that may help provide an income to send the younger ones to school?

 Subscribe in a reader