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Wretched of the Earth

Poor People

by William T. Vollmann
Ecco, 450 pp., $29.95

Understanding Poverty

edited by Abhijit Vinayak Banerjee, Roland Bénabou, and Dilip Mookherjee
Oxford University Press, 443 pp., $35.00 (paper)

No interview haunts me more than a conversation with a Cambodian peasant, Nhem Yen, in 1996. She was forty years old, though she looked much older, and was living with her family in a clearing in the Cambodian jungle. The area was notorious for malaria, but the family members were ambitious and industrious and figured that it was worth the risk to make more money by cutting wood for sale.

Nhem Yen’s eldest daughter, who was twenty-four and pregnant with her second child, promptly caught malaria. There was no money to get medical treatment (effective drugs would have cost less than $10), and so she died a day after giving birth. That left Nhem Yen looking after five children of her own and two grandchildren.

The family had one mosquito net that could accommodate about three people. Such nets are quite effective against malaria, but they cost $5—and Nhem Yen could not afford to buy any more. So every night, she agonized over which of the children to put under the net and which to leave out.

It’s very hard to choose,” Nhem Yen told me. “But we have no money to buy another mosquito net. We have no choice.”

That is the real face of poverty: it is not so much the pain of hunger or the humiliation of rags, but the impossible choices you face. If you can only afford school fees for some of your children, which do you send? If you must choose between medical treatment for Dad, the breadwinner, or for Daughter, the A student, which is it? Do you use your savings to provide a good dowry so Eldest Daughter can get a decent husband, or do you settle for the drunkard who will beat her and instead invest the savings in a food cart that may help provide an income to send the younger ones to school?

One measure of the ubiquity of these tradeoffs is that today, as every day, 30,000 children will die of hunger, disease, and other consequences of poverty, according to UNICEF. In many cases, those will be daughters, because parents (particularly in South Asia) don’t have the resources to keep all their children alive, so they put a finger on the scales on the side of their sons. In India alone, among children aged one to five, girls are 50 percent more likely to die than boys—meaning that 130,000 Indian girls are mortally discriminated against each year.

Poverty both in the US and around the world remains a central fact of twenty-first-century life; a majority of the world lives on less than $2 a day, one common measure of who is poor. Yet we manage, pretty successfully, to ignore it and insulate ourselves even from poverty in our own country. When it pops out from behind the screen after an episode like the Watts riots of 1965 or the New Orleans hurricane of 2005, then we express horror and indignation and vow change, and finally shrug and move on. Meanwhile, the world’s five hundred wealthiest people have the same income as the world’s poorest 416 million.

These days, however, something interesting is stirring in the world of poverty. People like Bill and Melinda Gates and Warren Buffett have made it almost as prestigious for philanthropists to underwrite vaccinations as to underwrite the ballet. Bono and Angelina Jolie have made Africa almost sexy. And several Democratic presidential candidates have real expertise and interest in the issue, particularly domestically: Barack Obama worked as a grassroots antipoverty organizer in Chicago; Hillary Rodham Clinton has long labored on child poverty; and John Edwards has spent the last few years assiduously studying poverty and speaking out about it. On the Republican side, Sam Brownback is also very serious about poverty and related issues, including prison conditions and recidivism.

So we now have a wealth of interest in poverty. A fruit of that, or perhaps a beneficiary of it, is William Vollmann’s new work, bluntly titled Poor People. Vollmann is a terrific reporter and writer who won a National Book Award in 2005 for his novel Europe Central. He also comes across as an exceptionally nice guy, not only handing out money to people right and left but also allowing homeless people to squat next to his house in California. He gets a little testy when they use the area as a public toilet, but he still earnestly takes his daughter with him to chat with the homeless and has her shake their hands to show respect. Then he takes her inside to scrub that hand.

Vollmann’s book is difficult to describe. It’s not a systematic examination of poverty, and it’s certainly not a treatise on how to respond to poverty—he barely discusses possible solutions. Mostly, it’s a pointillist description of poor people he has encountered and interviewed extensively in Thailand, Russia, China, and elsewhere. Vollmann asks them questions like “do you consider yourself poor?” Or “why are poor people poor?” Or “are men and women equally poor?” Or “why are you poor?” Or “why are some people rich and some poor?”

The problem is that the answers often aren’t very interesting, persuasive, or authoritative. It’s useful to ask poor people about poverty, but after wading through three hundred pages of their equally impoverished answers, unleavened by some larger context or theme, I think Vollmann would have been better off spending some of his time asking such questions of a panel of Ivy League professors. (Granted, I’m being unfair in asking for a book that Vollmann apparently didn’t want to write.)

Vollmann has written something that is perhaps closer to travel literature than poverty literature. His book is a bit like one of Paul Theroux’s—but a compassionate, warm Theroux—with its finely drawn characters who are interesting in themselves but whose comments don’t suggest some larger truth. The first person Vollmann sketches is a Thai woman named Sunee, a drunkard and probably a former “entertainer” in Japan. She has a daughter to whom Vollmann sometimes gives money (which Sunee periodically confiscates). Sunee rings true to me, as do all the other figures in the book. But the interview with her doesn’t illuminate the challenge of poverty or suggest how to resolve it.

The most moving evocations of poverty have been fictional: Zola’s Germinal, or Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath. Those novels have heroic characters, and you want to reach into your pocket and solve their problems by handing them a pile of cash. But in the real world, many tales of poverty are less moving and more nuanced, with a dash of self-destructiveness thrown in. It may not be entirely Sunee’s fault that she is a drunkard, but it does make you less likely to react sympathetically when you read of her decline. In that sense, Vollmann’s work is a useful reminder that poverty is often a shortage of more than cash. The optimistic efforts of the antipoverty campaigns of the 1960s and of many foreign aid programs didn’t work out as well as hoped partly because they ended up treating poverty essentially as a redistribution issue—and it’s far more than that.

The best nonfiction book on American poverty I have ever read is Jason DeParle’s brilliant American Dream: Three Women, Ten Kids, and a Nation’s Drive to End Welfare.1 It’s a close-up look at three poor women and the impact of the effort to end welfare “as we know it.” It’s far too rich and complex a work to offer simple solutions, but in the end it suggests that there are real benefits to pushing some families out of welfare into work—but that those benefits are modest and still leave little hope of resolving the challenges of poverty. Still, DeParle (a colleague at The New York Times) does examine at the end of his book some programs to combat poverty and suggests that in the 1990s we began to learn what works and what doesn’t in alleviating its worst forms in the United States.

There is, I think, a liberal squeamishness about confronting the reality that one important element that sustains poverty is culture: a self-destructive pathology that arises from poverty and then entraps the poor in it for generation after generation. The culture varies with the society, and it is different for Dalits (or Untouchables) in India and for villagers in Congo and for the homeless in the US. Often, though, this culture involves elements of hopelessness, substance abuse, underinvestment in education, self-fulfilling expectations of failure, and squandered resources.

Less vivid but more insightful in depicting poverty is a recent scholarly article in The Journal of Economic Perspectives. Abhijit V. Banerjee and Esther Duflo have written a fascinating—and troubling—examination called “The Economic Lives of the Poor,” based on surveys of people living on less than $2 a day in thirteen countries.2 The surveys found the respondents to be undernourished, with 55 percent of poor adults in Udaipur, India, suffering from anemia (which also limits their ability to work and earn money). The poor also invest negligible sums in education (about 2 percent of their income), even though more investment in schooling might offer their children a way out of the cycle.

Yet it’s much too simple to conclude that their lack of spending on adequate food and education is solely because they don’t have the money. Part of it is the way they spend money—7 percent of their spending went for sugar. As the authors write:

A common image of the extremely poor is that they do not get to make many real choices….Yet among the non-food items that the poor spend significant amounts of money on, alcohol and tobacco show up prominently. The extremely poor in rural areas spent 4.1 percent of their budget on tobacco and alcohol in Papua New Guinea, 5.0 percent in Udaipur, India; 6.0 percent in Indonesia and 8.1 percent in Mexico….

Perhaps more surprisingly, it is apparent that spending on festivals is an important part of the budget for many extremely poor households. In Udaipur, over the course of the previous year, more than 99 percent of the extremely poor households spent money on a wedding, a funeral, or a religious festival. The median household spent 10 percent of its annual budget on festivals. In South Africa, 90 percent of the households living under $1 per day spent money on festivals. In Pakistan, Indonesia, and Cote d’Ivoire, more than 50 percent did likewise.

Festivals are one way for the poorest and most degraded families to gain dignity for a day. But the best single investment to gain long-term dignity is education, and that’s the way to break the cycle. As the authors of this article note, one reason for the underinvestment in education is that illiterate parents can’t judge what investments in education will pay off.

The pattern of misallocation of resources is confirmed by what I’ve seen in poor countries. It’s routine to visit a family with a severely malnourished child (with consequences for the child’s cognition if it survives), and find out that the family has some meager savings—but Dad is off drinking them up at a nearby bar. And this is dispiriting for a man to admit, but it’s typically that way: abundant research shows that in poor families, women invest money in food, children, and small businesses—and men squander funds on cigarettes, alcohol, video halls, and prostitution.

  1. 1

    Viking, 2004; reviewed in these pages by Christopher Jencks, December 15, 2005.

  2. 2

    See The Journal of Economic Perspectives, Vol. 21, No. 1 (Winter 2007). The article can be found at http://econ-www.mit.edu/faculty/download_ pdf.php?id=1346.

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