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May. 26 2010 - 6:20 pm | 73 views | 0 recommendations | 1 comment

Poverty and education values

Jamelle Bouie, writing at his guest-blogging digs, makes some very good points about poverty and stereotypes in response to this piece by Nick Kristof. Here’s Kristof:

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.

And here’s Jamelle:

The truth is that there isn’t much evidence to suggest that the African poor — or the poor more generally — are any more short-sighted and foolish than their wealthier counterparts, domestically and abroad. Indeed, there is plenty to suggest that the world’s poor live fairly sophisticated economic lives, and are more than capable of saving and planning for the future. The lazy stereotype of the irresponsible poor is just that, a lazy stereotype. While poor spending choices undoubtedly prevent the progress of many poor people, ultimately, mass poverty is a systemic problem.

This is absolutely correct, though I understand where Kristof would get this impression. I’ve known a number of people – and I don’t want to say “poor” because I think this is more about education than about economics – who would never even consider spending time or money on getting an education, who don’t really value their kids’ education or have any desire to help them succeed in school, etc.  Education barely even shows up on the radar. A lot of these people spend plenty of money on other things like TV’s and video games and going out to eat.

I would suspect, however, that this is largely not because these people are more selfish or more frivolous than people in the middle or upper class. Rather, I think that many people in lower socio-economic groups simply don’t understand the benefits of education spending the way people further up the economic chain do. This is not for lack of caring, but for lack of experience. If nobody in your family has gone to college, you’re much less likely to fully understand the benefits of getting an education. You’re also much less likely to have help getting into college in the first place. While money may be available in the form of grants or scholarships, the people you need to actually understand how to get that money are often nowhere to be found.

So it’s really not as simple as breaking down spending trends at various levels of society. The fact is, if you don’t come from a family that values education – whether that’s on purpose or simply circumstantial – you’re less likely to value it yourself, and thus less likely to spend your money, or even go searching for money, to pay for an education.


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