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.
That probably sounds sanctimonious, haughty and callous, but it’s been on my mind while traveling through central Africa with a college student on my annual win-a-trip journey.
Two M.I.T. economists, Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo, found 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.
Look, I don’t want to be an unctuous party-pooper. But I’ve seen too many children dying of malaria for want of a bed net that the father tells me is unaffordable, even as he spends larger sums on liquor. If we want Mr. Obamza’s children to get an education and sleep under a bed net — well, the simplest option is for their dad to spend fewer evenings in the bar.
Good for Kristof for speaking a hard truth. I spend a lot of time talking about stupid, selfish rich people, usually in high finance, and the price innocent people pay for the foolish, immoral acts of the well-off and powerful. But many children of the poor are paying a terrible price for the stupid, selfish behavior of those entrusted to their care. And not only in Africa, but right here in America, too. Where I grew up, it was common to see poor people living in shotgun shacks, with shiny, expensive cars parked in front. Anybody here read “Angela’s Ashes”? Remember how horrible Frank McCourt’s family suffered from intense poverty because his no-good father drank up money that the family needed for basic subsistence living? I have no pity, none at all, for adults whose self-indulgence makes those who depend on them for everything suffer. Whether you’re rich, poor or middle class, there are always economic consequences to bad character. We shouldn’t sentimentalize them away. Every one of us is morally responsible for our behavior, and the impact it has on those who cannot care for themselves. True, the rich are more responsible than the poor, because they have more resources. But in every family, no matter what it’s class, children are the poor, and adults, because they have power, are the rich.