In his Sunday NYTimes op-ed column, Nicholas Kristof took on the uncomfortable topic of how the poor spend what little money they have. Kristof, with data to back it up, asserts 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’s sure to cause a ruckus in the development community. Some who defend the poor as trapped in a poverty caused by larger external forces will choose to ignore Kristof’s claim or rail against what may be perceived as a smug piety. While on the other side of the aisle, those who contend the poor remain in a poverty of their own making will find themselves in the position of quoting and defending Kristof.
The column’s real message, beyond the shock of tawdry topics like moonshine and prostitutes, is to call into question the easy assumptions we make about the causes of poverty and instead to consider the complexity of poverty: “If we’re going to make more progress … we need to look unflinchingly at uncomfortable truths.”
The piece proves that Kristof knows one secret to a successful column: Say something so potentially inflammatory that it riles up everybody. But does Kristof go too far when, throughout the piece, he calls out Congolese parents by name and at one point asks a father “why he prioritizes alcohol over educating his kids”?
UPDATE: Kristof continues this discussion on his NYTimes blog, where readers can also comment.