Sorry about the light posting lately, folks. My day job is taking up a ton of mental energy these days, as are my attempts to arrange a new day job for when this one ends in September.
I think Nicholas Kristof definitely missed me, because two days ago he dangled this irresistible Amanda-bait on the NY Times Op-Ed page:
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.
In a pleasing turn of events, Mr. Kristof actually has a legitimate source to cite for this, in addition to his usual anecdotes and photos of Miserable African Children. Well, sort of:
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.
File this one under “things that make you go ‘hmmm.'” For one thing, Duflo & Banerjee say exactly nothing about spending on prostitution in their article, which makes the last line of that paragraph extremely misleading. (They don’t specifically discuss soft drinks, either, but do spend a while discussing sugar and other empty calories, so I suppose I can give him a pass on that.)
And while you’re at it, file it under “RYFSM,” too. (That would be “Read Your Fucking Source Material.”) Kristof seems to have done some awfully targeted reading of the article in question. While it is true that Duflo and Banerjee did find that the poor in many countries spent significant sums on alcohol and tobacco, this is in fact what they had to say about spending on education:
The extremely poor spend very little on education. The expenditure on education generally hovers around 2 percent of household budgets: higher in Pakistan (3 percent), Indonesia (6 percent), and Cote d’Ivoire (6 percent), but much lower in Guatemala (0.1 percent), and South Africa (0.8 percent). […] This low level of expenditure on education is not because the children are out of school. In 12 of the 13 countries in our sample, with the exception of Cote d’Ivoire, at least 50 percent of both boys and girls aged 7 to 12 in extremely poor households are in school. In about half the countries, the proportion enrolled is greater than 75 percent among girls, and more than 80 percent among boys.
The reason education 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. However, mounting evidence, reported below, suggests that public schools in these countries are often dysfunctional, which could explain why even very poor parents in Pakistan are pulling their children out of public schools and spending money to send them to private schools.
So, not so much the “ubiquitous problem” Kristof describes, then: most poor parents are sending their children to school, and the low education expenditure is at least partly a good sign, because it’s the result of free or heavily-subsidized primary education. Kristof is, presumably, in favor of that. Did he stop reading before he got to that paragraph, or what?
Moreover, as xpostfactoid notes, Duflo & Banerjee’s study didn’t include data from the Congo Republic, from whence Kristof draws this week’s Miserable African Child anecdotes. However, if one did want to draw an inference from the article’s findings, and if the schools there do all charge fees, as Kristof claims, then the more reasonable inference to draw would be that spending on primary education there is probably higher than the 2% average, and closer to the 6% observed in Cote D’Ivoire and Indonesia. (Not to mention that, if the schools were charging fees when they were supposed to be free, then they were either (a) corrupt, (b) critically under-resourced, or (c) all of the above. None of which are necessarily a good sign with regard to the quality of education on offer there.)
In fact, far from concluding that an exchange of spending on food for spending on education would “transform” children’s prospects, Duflo & Banerjee are hardly complimentary about the education available to poor children:
The low quality of teaching in public schools has clear effect on learning levels as well. In India, despite the fact that 93.4 percent of children ages 6–14 are enrolled in schools (75 percent of them in government schools), a recent nationwide survey found that 34.9 percent of the children age 7 to 14 cannot read a simple paragraph at second-grade level (Pratham, 2006). Moreover, 41.1 percent cannot do subtraction, and 65.5 percent cannot do division. Even among children in grades six to eight in government schools, 22 percent cannot read a second-grade text.
In countries where the public provision of education and health services is particularly low, private providers have stepped in. In the parts of India where public school teacher absenteeism is the highest, the fraction of rural children attending private schools is also the highest (Chaudhury, Hammer, Kremer, Muralidharan, and Rogers, 2005). However, these private schools are less than ideal: they have lower teacher absenteeism than the public schools in the same village, but their teachers are significantly less qualified in the sense of having a formal teaching degree.
And, in considering why the poor don’t seek out better education for their children:
One reason is that poor parents, who may often be illiterate themselves, may have a hard time recognizing that their children are not learning much. Poor parents in Eastern Uttar Pradesh in India have limited success in predicting whether their school-age children can read (Banerjee et al., 2006). Moreover, how can parents be confident that a private school would offer a better education, given that the teacher there is usually less qualified than the public school teachers? After all, researchers have only discovered this pattern in the last few years. As for putting pressure on the government, it is not clear that the average villager would know how to organize and do so.
Huh. I didn’t see anything in there about “maybe if they spent less on booze and hookers,” did you?
Kristof doesn’t spend much time imagining why people might want to spend money on things like alcohol or tobacco – or cell phone credit, which he mysteriously places in the same category. He clearly assumes that they are luxury items that ought to be cut from the budget. However, I’m not sure that’s reasonable. A cell phone might be a luxury here in New York, where residents have myriad other reliable communications systems to choose from. (USPS, land lines, FedEx, Interwebs…) But without knowing why the people he interviewed spend that much on credit each month, I can’t begin to speculate about whether it should be considered a luxury, a necessity, or somewhere in between. Likewise, while alcohol and tobacco are not the healthiest of products, how can Kristof be sure that a dollar spent on beer is buying the beer, and not some less-tangible good, like the social standing in the community that comes of buying your friends a drink? And that kind of social standing isn’t necessarily a luxury item. Also from the Duflo & Banerjee article:
In principle, social networks can provide informal insurance. For example, Udry (1990) shows that poor villagers in Nigeria experience a dense network of loan exchanges: Over the course of one year, 75 percent of the households had made loans, 65 percent had borrowed money, and 50 percent had been both borrowers and lenders. Almost all of these loans took place between neighbors and relatives. Both the repayment schedule and the amount repaid were affected by both the lender’s and the borrower’s current economic conditions, underlining the role of these informal loans in providing insurance. Munshi and Rosenzweig (2005) argue that the same process happens in India through the jati or subcaste networks.
Gosh, I wonder if access to that sort of informal social insurance is affected by one’s relationships with others in the community. Like, perhaps, how often one socializes with others, possibly in contexts that involve buying the occasional beer or cigarette? Or how fully one participates in important festivals, “extravagant” or otherwise? Yeah, you’re right. Probably not.
And, finally: how is it acceptable to insist that poor people sacrifice the few small pleasures within their reach in order to comply with a random American journalist’s view of what is Really Important? That kind of supercilious morality seems to me to be a particularly judgmental form of cruelty. Color me unimpressed. (Texasinafrica too, apparently.)