The Time-Honored Game of Blaming the Poor for their Poverty

By Jamelle Bouie

This is a bit old, but it’s worth commenting on regardless. Nick Kristof — an otherwise admirable guy — thinks it’s appropriate to chastise poor Africans for their consumption choices in the pages of the New York Times:

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.

Kristof comments that this “probably sounds sanctimonious, haughty and callous” and well, it does. Kristof comes dangerously close to sounding like the domestic commentators who blame the problems of inner-city African-Americans on a lack of personal responsibility and some kind of unique black “pathology.” These are the folks that chastise poor blacks for owning cell phones or drinking alcohol, as if that — and not broader systemic problems — is to blame for their poverty. Indeed, I’ll go ahead and quote South African blogger Sean Jacob’s charge that Kristof all but endorses “19th century views in which Westerners, and particularly white Westerners, decide whats good for poor, third world, mostly black, particularly black people.”

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. And I think Kristof would agree; towards the end of his column, he makes good points about developing systems that would encourage more and greater saving in poor countries. Unfortunately, that decent suggestion is overshadowed by the rest of his “sanctimonious, haughty and callous” column.