Bad-itudes of the Poor

NYT Columnist Nick Kristof has roiled the international development blogosphere yet again. In a provocative op-ed, Kristof reveals that the poorest of the poor often go without antimalarial bednets but still indulge in alcohol, cigarettes and prostitutes.

Kristof points to “The Economic Lives of the Poor,” a study by MIT economists Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo, which demonstrates that households suffering from poverty only spend about two percent of their income on educating their children, and two to four times that amount on tobacco and alcohol products. (He suggests two remedies: a) empowering women financially via legal means, and b) microsavings programs.)

Laura Seay, a professor of political science at Morehouse College, expressed her shock and disbelief at what she saw as unacceptable condescension and stereotyping. Sean Jacobs at the Africa is a Country blog goes even further with the snark, ridiculing the op-ed as a “blame-the-poor classic with particularly overt Calvinist moral messaging” and disregard for “colonial legacy, public finance and global economics…”

On the other hand, Bill Easterly attests to the validity of Kristof’s concerns; understanding the behavior of the poor is central to achieving aid efficacy and indeed, books such as Portfolios of the Poor have undertaken this important assignment. Adding the caveat that stereotyping all poor African men as alcoholic deadbeat dads is false and entirely counterproductive, Easterly proceeds to explain why the poor (and the rich!) may behave in counterproductive and irrational ways. For example, a study by Michael Kremer and Alaka Holla shows that the poor will not invest any of their own money in life-saving technologies such as bed nets or water disinfectants, even if the sum is very small. Easterly explains that it is not that the parents do not find it worthwhile to protect their children’s lives; rather, it is that they may not believe in the efficacy of preventative measures, because they have not witnessed scientific medicine in action.

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