Kristof’s ‘Simplest Option’ for Ending Poverty: Blame the Poor

In his May 23 column–“Moonshine or the Kids?”–New York Times columnist Nick Kristof has hit upon the “simplest option” for keeping poor African kids in school (and ending malaria): getting their fathers to stop drinking, smoking and whoring.

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.

Kristof gleans this from visiting some families in the Congo Republic in which, Kristof says, the fathers spend far more on alcohol than it would cost to send their kids to school or buy bed nets to protect them from malaria. He backs this evidence up with an MIT study that he links to, which he says shows

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.

That’s right, the poorest of the world’s children lack education and decent health to no small degree because their extravagant parents have their priorities in the wrong place. “That probably sounds sanctimonious, haughty and callous,” Kristof writes. But “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.”

Actually, it does sound sanctimonious, haughty and callous–but more importantly, it’s a seriously flawed argument. The study Kristof points to paints a different picture–one that doesn’t back up the sweeping generalizations and conclusions he makes based on his anecdotal evidence.

First, it’s bizarre that he mentions prostitution multiple times in his column, since the study doesn’t actually mention it. (It doesn’t seem to mention soft drinks, either.) As for the “extravagant” festivals, that plus other entertainment averages just a little over 2 percent–less than education spending.* I’d like to see what Kristof’s entertainment budget looks like in comparison.

In fact, the study shows that in the 13 countries surveyed, the most “significant sums” the very poor spend are the 56 percent to 78 percent of their money that goes just toward food.

And how about education? Here Kristof cherry-picks and completely misrepresents the study data. Comparing overall average spending on education to particular countries’ alcohol and tobacco spending is comparing apples to oranges. If you compare the overall averages, it’s 2.7 percent on education (which most would call “about 3 percent,” not “about 2 percent”) versus 3.0 percent on alcohol and tobacco. Looking at particulars, those heavy-drinking and -smoking Indonesians Kristof highlights still spend more on education than their vices (6.3 percent vs. 6.0 percent), and the Mexicans in the study who spend 8.1 percent on alcohol and tobacco, come across looking much better when that’s compared to how much they spend on education–6.9 percent–rather than the study-wide average, which is pretty much irrelevant.

Here’s what the study says about spending on education: “The reason spending is low is that children in poor households typically attend public schools or other schools that do not charge a fee. In countries where poor households spend more on education, it is typically because government schools have fees (as in Indonesia and Cote d’Ivoire).”

As for alcohol and cigarettes, a high percentage (44 percent) say they want to be spending less on those. Those substances do happen to be addictive, and I have a feeling there aren’t so many addiction programs available for them.

In other words, Kristof’s “ugly secret” about the drinking, smoking, whoring poor is hardly ubiquitous, and getting parents to shift the tiny amount of income they spend on such things to education is highly unlikely to transform their children’s prospects. Asking the poorest of the poor to put more of their minuscule disposable income towards their children’s education might be the “simplest” option–if your goal is to let governments, and the global financial system that keeps those governments indebted and structurally adjusted, off the hook for making quality public education available, free of charge.

*Kristof seems to be using the study’s numbers for the rural very poor–living on less than a dollar a day–so I’m using those numbers as well.

About Julie Hollar

Managing Editor of Extra! Magazine
Julie Hollar is the managing editor of FAIR's magazine, Extra!. Her work received an award from Project Censored in 2005, and she has been interviewed by such media outlets as the Los Angeles Times, Agence France-Presse and the San Francisco Chronicle. A graduate of Rice University, she has written for the Texas Observer and coordinated communications and activism at the Lesbian/Gay Rights Lobby of Texas. Hollar also co-directed the 2006 documentary Boy I Am and was previously active in the Paper Tiger Television collective.