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Poverty: An Exchange

In response to:

Wretched of the Earth from the May 31, 2007 issue

To the Editors:

Nicholas Kristof develops a compelling account of the dramatic consequences of poverty and a strong call to fight against the most important global challenge [“Wretched of the Earth,” NYR, May 31]. Yet some of his facts and policy recommendations are unpersuasive. I would like to concentrate on three related issues

Mr. Kristof argues that in most countries—with the exception of the US—the distribution of income has become more equal under globalization. This is far from true. While the United States and the United Kingdom have led the way toward increasing inequality, most countries in Latin America and many in Africa and Asia have followed the trend. In a 2004 United Nations report, Giovanni Andrea Cornia et al. concluded that “the last two decades have been characterized by a surge in within-country inequality in about two-thirds of the developing, developed and transitional nations analyzed.” Increasing inequality has dramatic effects on the poor, reducing the positive effect of economic growth on their lives.

By concentrating on China and East Asia, Mr. Kristof fails to account for the negative impact of globalization in other parts of the world. For those of us that travel regularly to Latin America and not to Asia, the contrasting impact of global economic integration on the rich and the poor is hard to miss. More dramatically, China’s success may have negative implications for poverty reduction in many developing countries. As Chinese exports of apparel surge, for example, more and more textile workers in Central America and Mexico are losing their jobs.

Some of the article’s policy recommendations are also questionable. While expanding public spending in health and education is obviously important, it is not clear that targeting the poor is the way to achieve optimum results. Universal programs that incorporate all social groups and treat public services as entitlements can work better. Universal programs benefit those below the poverty line but also the non-poor that risk joining them. More importantly, universal programs can empower the poor, making them part of society and avoiding the stigmatizing effect of targeting. As the Northern European experience shows, there is no better way of eliminating the damaging cultural consequences of poverty than slowly constructing more generous welfare states.

Diego Sanchez Ancochea
Lecturer in Economics
Institute for the Study of the Americas
University of London
London, England

To the Editors:

Nicholas Kristof’s article on poor people ended on a point which deserves comment and expansion. In a short section on the policies which are successful at bringing people out of poverty, particularly in the US, the focus is on educating children. The current thinking on social programs for the poor emphasizes early intervention. Preschool programs target youngsters during a critical period of language development—such programs can counteract cognitive and social deprivation poor children experience in the home. The long-term benefits of the early intervention approach are often contrasted with programs aimed at older children and adults—these have proven less efficacious. Neuroscience findings support early intervention in that experience-driven changes in the brain are usually greater in magnitude when they occur during a specific developmental time frame (Knudsen et al., PNAS). However, the danger of social programs based on critical-period mentality is that the poor who have passed this life stage without access to these programs will be considered immune to any further attempt at rehabilitation.

Being poor in the US is particularly stressful because the extended family has been undermined by drug addiction and incarceration. Persistent stress, especially in the absence of positive social support, negatively influences adult brain structure and function, resulting in impaired cognition, mood disorders, and inadequate parenting. Stress-induced effects on the brain undoubtedly make it even more difficult for poor adults to find a way out of their predicament. But this is only the negative side of what we know about how experience alters the adult brain. By contrast, studies in experimental animals have shown that living in a complex environment as an adult can reverse a lifetime of deprivation and stress in terms of brain structure and function. The scientific realization that the adult brain is resilient should renew the quest for social programs targeted not just at children, but also at adults.

Elizabeth Gould
Department of Psychology, Neuroscience Institute
Princeton University
Princeton, New Jersey

Nicholas Kristof replies:

Inequality within most countries has diminished, but over the period since the industrial revolution began—not in the briefer period since the latest round of globalization began. For example, take the Theil index, which measures within-country-group inequality, with 0 representing a situation of perfect equality. As reported (on p. xix) in Understanding Poverty, one of the books I reviewed, the index peaked at .50 in 1910 (in other words, the year of greatest inequality) and then dropped to .32 in 1950 before rising slightly to .34 in 1992 (the most recent figure available).

So it is probably true that in recent decades inequality within countries has increased a bit (after dropping by much larger amounts over the previous period). But that modest increase has been swamped by a much greater increase in inequality from one country to another. The Theil index of across-country-group inequality rose steadily from .06 in 1820 to .30 in 1910 to .51 in 1992.

So, as I wrote in the article, the central cause of global inequities isn’t rising inequality within countries. Rather it’s the gulf between wealthy countries and poor countries. And that makes it all the more important to try to try to stimulate growth in the poorest countries—which is a euphemism for Africa. How to help the poorest countries and get them growing is also the focus of a terrific new book, The Bottom Billion, by Paul Collier, a well-known development economist; it’s an excellent and readable introduction to the challenges of African poverty.

Meanwhile, it’s true that globalization hasn’t been nearly as good for Latin America as for East Asia. But the countries in Latin America that are most connected to the global economy, such as Chile, are certainly better off than those that are less so, like Bolivia.

Finally, it’s all very well to say that poor countries should develop universal services rather than target the needs of the poor. But poor countries don’t have the resources to take care of everybody. They have to establish priorities, and the first step should be to focus on the most acute needs: vaccinating children, reducing maternal mortality, educating kids, and so on. Invariably, the most urgent needs are among the poorest citizens.

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