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Archive for May 28th, 2010

New York Times Op-Ed columnist Nicholas Kristof is coming under fire for his May 22, 2010 commentary titled Moonshine or Kids?

Kristof starts his commentary by discussing poverty in general terms.  Specifically, he focuses on the issue of spending choices.  He asserts:

“…[I]f 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.”

This is not a new assertion. Others have said the same thing – the decision making habits of poor people tend to be focused on short-term gratification instead of long-term investment.

A more detailed elaboration of this point can be found in the work done by Dr. Ruby Payne through her Framework for Understanding Poverty.  Dr. Payne points out there are socio-economic biases in our “hidden rules of behavior.” Middle Class decision making is driven by work and achievement. Decision making by those living in generational poverty is driven by Survival, Relationships and Entertainment.

If I were to attempt to summarize Kristof’s argument, it would be as follows:

  1. Spending habits of poor people need to be examined
  2. Bad budgeting causes as much deficiencies as the lack of money
  3. Mothers are more likely to invest in their kids than fathers
  4. Microsavings programs should favor mothers over fathers

To substantiate this argument, Kristof cites a book he co-authored titled “Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide” There is also a website where people can get involved Half the Sky Movement.

Seems like a simple enough argument and not one you would think would draw a firestorm of controversy.  However, here is a sample of negative reactions:

“A blame-the-poor classic with particularly overt Calvinist moral messaging”

“This Week in Bad Advocacy”

“Are Poor Africans Bad Parents?”

The reason for all the anger???  Despite the fact that Kristof asserts he is talking about global poverty issues, he only gives one example in his commentary: a poor family in the Republic of Congo.  Most of the column’s real estate is dedicated to this one example which immediately begs the question, if one is trying to discuss global poverty, why is the only example mentioned one from Africa?

Western media in general (not just Kristof and NYT but other print and television media) seem to have only one depiction of Africa – its failures, corruption, starving children, irresponsible adults, ….Rod Chavis (UPENN African Studies Center) elaborates on these issues in his paper “Africa in the Media” (1998).  Little attention is given to books such as Africa Rising: How 900 Million African Consumers Offer More Than You Think or movies such as Africa Open for Business.  On the count of negative portrayal of Africa when there are negative examples from other areas, Kristof is guilty as charged.

Unfortunately, the focus on this one issue detracts from the validity of an extremely important issue:

What can we do to find ways to encourage those faced with generational poverty to make financial decisions that benefit them (instead of spending their money on goods and or services that benefit others)?

Kristof recommends focusing on women/mothers. This strategy has been proven to be effective but, if one continues with the assertion that fathers invest less in their children, it still does not answer the question: how do we incentivize fathers? If both parents are responsible for the child, should it not also follow that both parents must be empowered to more beneficial behavior?

While I do not like the way in which Kristof illustrates his point, I do have to thank him for attempting to generate national dialog on the issue of behavioral incentives.  You can read my reactions to his post by viewing Comment #377.  As is pointed out by AID Watch “[t]he efficacy of aid interventions depends very much on understanding the behavior of the poor”

If there is any strong attack I would leverage on Kristof it is the focus on mothers and microsavings as a “silver bullet” solution.  Poverty is as complex of an issue as the human beings which are trapped by its grasp.  There is no one-size-fits-all approach. However, in order to succeed, we must start with what we have shown to be successful and build from there.  Mothers and microsavings are just a good a starting point as any other.

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