If you are interested in the causes (and remedies!) for poverty, you will want to read Poor Economics: A Radical Rethinking of the Way to Fight Global Poverty, in which the authors suggest that we need to put the assumptions about the poverty trap to the test by running experiments. Do mosquito nets get ignored if given away for free? Let’s compare outcomes between regions that did give them out for free and others that did not. Do poor people bypass childhood vaccinations because they are uninformed, or do they simply procrastinate, like the rest of us? Are crises always worse for the very poor, or for the middle class? Is fertilizer better purchased right at harvest time or when it is needed?
Through simple experiments the authors find that “the poor” are just like everyone else: they procrastinate, they spend rather than save, they practice diversification in their meager assets — but they don’t have a cushion, so when things go bad, they go really badly. The book is careful about prescriptions but still makes it clear that most anti-poverty programs are shooting blindly, using untested (and arrogant) assumptions when it would be pretty simple to ask, test, and measure. An inspiring and very approachable book. Since I said mean things about Ecole Normale intellectuals earlier I should mention that Duflo was educated there, and shines.
Breakfast at Sally’s is a clumsy but very inspirational (as promised by the subtitle) exposition about the homeless, centered on the author and his adored dog but chronicling the lives of dozens of others who become homeless through bad luck, addictions of some kind or other, or both. LeMieuxcaptures the surprisingly tight-knit society of the homeless in the Washington town where he lives. Just like in any other social group there are generous souls, losers, fixers, children and the very old, exploiters and helpers. If you stick with the descriptions and skip the (not many) pages of haranguing the book works very well.
It’s clear that a rich society should be able to help the downtrodden more effectively. The book describes many homeless people who can, and sometimes do hold down jobs and would need just a small push to live in decent conditions. Why are they shoved on a two-year waiting list (with young kids too)? The problem is more complicated for the many who are unable to work but surely we could and should provide decent housing for the working poor, especially since it seems that a modest amount of help for the deposit would solve many problems.
Sometimes, we get lucky. So when I select a book in a hurry I can get Dewey. And sometimes not — I get This Land Is Their Land, in which Barbara Eherenheich spreads her usual venom and dislocated logic (see Nickel and Dimed) to deplore our polarized society of ultra-rich and very poor. I agree with many of her points, starting with the unseemly worship of greed, and I must say that she gives many apt, funny/sad examples. The one that sticks in my mind is that of the hospital employee whose wages are garnished by her employer because she could pay her sky-high hospital bills… incurred in the same hospital. Sigh.
What’s missing is any hint of solutions or suggestions to the problem. Certainly it’s a difficult problem but it seems that the author cannot go beyond her rantings and towards a fix other than the obviously circular concept that the rich should not be rich. What’s also missing is internal logic. In one essay she bemoans the fact that poor people don’t have access to a proper banking system (perhaps an oxymoron, these days, “proper banking system”…); in the next she denounces the issuing of mortgages to the same poor. Surely those mortgage-holders own a checking account. Still a shame to push unaffordable mortgages but it’s a different shame.
There must be many other constructive things you can do than read this book.
[end of (my) rant]