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Beer & Poverty

In response to:

Wretched of the Earth from the May 31, 2007 issue

To the Editors:

In Nicholas Kristof’s disturbing review of world poverty [“Wretched of the Earth,” NYR, May 31], he partly blames the poor, especially men, for accentuating their poverty by diverting money to alcohol and festivals. In this Hogarthian view the poor (and to be equitable presumably the rich) are admonished not to spend their last dime on a drink, just as I suppose both rich and poor are prohibited from sleeping under the bridges of Paris.

I have worked for many years with poor people in the Andes who spend money on festivals and on alcohol. Would Mr. Kristof strip them of their smallest pleasures: the capacity to dance, celebrate the gods, and have fun? Moreover, festivals and even communal drinking are not the economic dead ends portrayed by Mr. Kristof. By giving festivals and spending on a round of drinks, the poor build networks that they use to get work, to obtain medical care, to get a child into a school, to get a loan—in short, to provide the many connections that can mean life or death in what are perpetually hard times.

William P. Mitchell

Freed Foundation Professor in the Social Sciences and Professor of Anthropology

Monmouth University

West Long Branch, New Jersey

Nicholas Kristof replies:

I raise my glass to festivals. But I am troubled when I visit families (as I just did in Burundi, Rwanda, and Congo) and see kids being pulled out of school because parents can’t afford school uniforms, or dying of malaria because parents can’t afford bed nets, and meanwhile the father is spending very significant portions of the family income on beer. Among the very poorest families in rural Indonesia, for example, 6 percent of family income goes to tobacco and alcohol (exclusively for the husband). So if you want to save the lives of kids now dying of malaria, one useful way is to encourage fathers to invest their savings in their children’s education or in a bed net instead of in visits to the bar three nights a week. One method for encouraging that change in spending is to empower women and give them more control over the family purse strings, and another is to encourage savings programs for peasants who have no access to banks.

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