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.