Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Blowing Up the Virtuous Poor Myth

Often when the life of poor people is considered, a life of scrimping and saving for the essentials is a picture that likely pops into our head. However, compare that to real life and you find that it frequently is not so. New York Times op-ed columnist Nicholas Kristof looked at the situation of the poor as he found it during his visit to the Congo Republic and wrote a very thought provoking column, "Moonshine or the kids?" Here's a quote:
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.
He goes on to give a few examples of people who are spending money on liquor and other non-essentials, and not having enough to send their children to school. (Despite supposedly being "free", almost all schools in African nations require a fee of some type), discusses a few ideas to improve things, among which is removing the money from the charge of the husband and letting the wife make spending decisions and concludes with:
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,...,we need to look unflinchingly at uncomfortable truths--and then try to redirect the family money now spent on wine and prostitution.
It wasn't the most commented upon op-ed I'd seen but it was right up there. 200+ responses came from Times readers. The comments also were interesting, giving examples of similar behavior by poor people in urban and rural America, talking about how it was hard for the poor to see beyond today, seeing such spending as a way to temporarily escape the poor's difficult life, and reflections on consumption and status. Very interesting stuff, very thought provoking, although none of the readers took on the notion of virtue itself. I do think the essay puts the final nails in the coffin of the idea that living in circumstances such as poverty creates more virtue. More about virtue in a minute.

The solutions posited by Kristof and by some of the commenters (click here for comment link) put the family budget in the hands of women struck me as ironic, since one of the mistakes made in the War on Poverty in this nation was to weaken the position of men as heads of household. We see the wreckage of that mistake in much of the Black community, where Black men are replaced as the strong provider by the government subsidy. So, while this idea may have merit, especially when used with cultural sensitivity, it could backfire, and demands caution. We must also look at our societies and see to it that they do contain "a way out" of poverty, that it is worth deferring pleasure for a future benefit.

Coming from a Christian viewpoint though I keep thinking about this inescapable fact: None of us are virtuous. None of us are made virtuous by suffering or poverty or wealth or education or any of that. We are all imperfect, missing the mark, making mistakes, committing sins. Frequently, our priorities are wrong. Our societies and cultures do rob us of hope systemically. This is a big problem that human effort will not solve.

There's a phenomenon called "salvation and uplift"--that is when a person, family or community makes a commitment to God. Confession of sin, opening up to Christ and salvation through the Cross, and the subsequent indwelling of God's Spirit in their lives creates a change in values. Money is spent more wisely. Work is regarded differently. Integrity and honesty become priorities. All this often results in improvement in a person's living situation and in the larger community. (This prosperity can often present a different set of spiritual and life problems, but that's for a different post.)

We can try to help people in many ways: through education, example, opportunity. And that should be done with vigor. However, In the end, it is the God solution is the one that works the best and most consistently. Sharing that solution, with and without words, is the job of the Christian and the Church. Let he who has ears to hear, let him hear.


Ann T. said...

Dear The Observer,
In my opinion, the choices you have on the ground in foreign aid are dictated by necessity and by custom--Theirs, plus the side effects of Ours.

I'm not sure we can change the world without a healthy dose of active cynicism and also acceptance, first, that our virtues in proper order are not the same as theirs in proper order.

Spending on liquor and prostitutes is short-term thinking. It's the kind of thinking you do when you don't expect to live very long. Until the environment improves, the people don't change. But people are the major factor in the environment, and on and on.

Your point on disenfranchising the male head of household is Very well-taken. Good point!!! I wish I had thought of it myself!

I would say that screwing with the basic social organization, no matter how idiotically run, is a recipe for disaster. However, microfinance works great. Many women, if loaned sixteen or a hundred dollars, start businesses of their own. Most of them know how to hide money and the rate of repayment on microfinance loans is stupendously good.

Eventually the woman has options but they grow out naturally from buying power and entrepreneurship. So does long-term thinking. Some of her kids have an opportunity to learn it, too. Not all of them will.

I would venture to guess that most of these women are not going to make their husband's infidelity their first point of concern. Life-threatening brutality, if any, or his substance abuse, probably, b/c it sucks away the money for the children. These women are already saints, if you want to look at it like that.

So she needs condoms to go w/ that microfinance, and a good dose of luck. The luck, in my opinion, is where the prayer comes in the hardest. Most of the rest is economics and how it is driven by custom.

But you believe in transformation far more than I do, so take this with that grain or shaker of salt!

Whoa, how long a comment is this,
and it was way longer, too,
Ann T.

the observer said...

Ann T:
Thanks for reading this rather dense post. Kristof's column provided a lot of food for thought. To be truthful, after the quoting and summerizing, I went several different directions, sometimes in the same paragraph! (Needless to say, the editor got ahold of that mess.)

You are right, I do believe in transformation by God, and I had to chose about how I would express that. I didn't want to deny that God can work through what Baptists call "common grace"; the efforts of people to sensitively try to reach and teach a better way to people. In the end, the work of God in a person's life, to me, can make the most impact.

I agree with condoms, smaller families, and routes for women to be able to free themselves from cruel and stupid men. Buried in the 300+ comments is a story about women in another African country who were hired en masse to do road grading. (They actually sent the heavy equipement away, in exchange for 1000 ladies with hand tools) The ladies were all paid, and almost none shared their monies with hubbin. They were put to the household. It's a cool story if you can find it in there.

Finally, re: culture. I think America has finally got it about relations with other cultures. The irony is that our "culture" is self spreading all over the world, being adapted by every world group. It's amazing to watch.

A rather long reply! Thanks for reading it, and visiting.
The Observer

Ann T. said...

Oh, yeah, this is a great discussion!
Thanks for a long reply back.

It makes me wonder what would happen if we took some of this foreign knowledge and applied it at home . . . I think about that all the time. For instance, the IMF and the World Bank would probably have advised against the housing bubble.

Phew! We could write ten dissertations on this one. I love that story about the road-grading.
Ann T.

Bob G. said...

...ANd I'm just sitting back with a BIG smile on my face for having been in the same (virtual) room with people of such brilliant thought and clarity.

Kudos to you both...nice to see this old world isn't as beat up as many think.

THINKING is the keystone to almost everything else we do in life.
It even allows the birth of BELIEFS!
And we all know where "believing" can lead.

the observer said...


Thanks for the visit and kudos. I do try around here to keep it interesting.

Here I must say that believing DOES NOT exclude THINKING as a matter of course. Sometimes I don't know if God brought me to faith through the feelings or through the thinkings, but since I've come to faith in Christ, I both FEEL and THINK.

Just trying to keep up around here, the Observer

Mahnaz said...

I am writing from Conversations for a Better World , a social platform for raising global issues and finding solutions and am contacting you because you re-blogged the New York Times Article “Moonshine or the Kids?”

Next week we’ll have a question up for discussion:

*"What evidence do we have that development dollars go further if placed
in the hands of women?" *

Because of your interest in investing in this article, we would like to invite you to submit a short blog-post of about one page to our website. Just go to www.conversationsforabetterworld.com to participate, or email me at dar@unfpa.org for more information.

We are exploring different aspects of female entrepreneurship, courage and empowerment. Increasingly women's contribution as workers, entrepreneurs and managers of family and communities is recognized as central to development. They are building schools and spearheading micro-credit projects. They are planting and harvesting crops, buying and selling goods. They are setting up small businesses and doing it for themselves and their communities. We want to create a discussion that is forward-looking and highlights projects and best practices around the world with women as the main drivers.

Thank you for your time and effort,


Conversations for a Better World is a social platform for raising global issues and finding solutions. Tell us how you want to better your community. We're looking for people, organizations, researchers, activists and businesses with ideas for a better world. www.conversationsforabetterworld.com.