Shine your own spotlight on poverty and need, urges NYT columnist

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Nicholas Kristof

“There’s something very deeply imbedded in us about trying to have an impact,” said New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof during a Feb. 24 talk on campus. “Yet there’s a sense that the problems are too vast, that there’s too much corruption … [I]n fact, there are a lot of ways in which one can have an impact.”

A two-time Pulitzer Prize-winner, Kristof talked about his book “A Path Appears,” which takes its title from the words of the Chinese essayist Lu Xun: “Hope is like a path in the countryside. Originally, there is nothing — but as people walk this way again and again, a path appears.” The event was co-sponsored by the Poynter Fellowship in Journalism, the Yale Journalism Initiative, the Yale Globalist, and the Orville H. Schell, Jr. Center for International Human Rights.

Kristof discussed how an innovative mindset, collective responsibility, and personal initiative are all tools we can wield to make a positive difference in the world. 

“There has been a lot of innovation in global poverty,” Kristof asserted, pointing to experiment-based evidence that microsavings programs have had a greater impact than microlending programs. A more cost-efficient method in expanding education overseas is not necessarily in building new schools, he said, but rather in investing in children’s health namely through deworming.

“For 1/100th the cost of bricks and mortar,” Kristof said, “you can deworm a child with a five-cent pill called Mebendazole (MBZ).” This would enable nearly 60 million uneducated kids worldwide to return back to elementary school and do well in their studies, he noted. 

Kristof added that addressing the teenage pregnancy rate in the United States will help break the cycle of poverty. “In the U.S., 30% of teenage girls become pregnant by age 19. Even though American kids don’t have any more sex than European kids do, they still get pregnant three times more often because there is less access to comprehensive sex education in this country and less access to long-acting reversible contraceptives.” One solution, Kristof said, would be to provide young women with more comprehensive sex education and long-acting reversible contraceptives like IUDs — not only to address the social justice issue of “kids having kids,” but also to address economic ones. For instance, Kristof stated, an IUD implant costs only $500 and is effective for several years, whereas a Medicaid birth costs nearly $12,000.

When writing about need both at home and abroad, Kristof routinely receives “pushback” from those who argue for more personal responsibility. He agreed that this is a factor, but he stressed more the notion of collective responsibility. “What strikes me is how often we fail kids,” Kristof said. He cited the example of a 4-year-old child in West Virginia who had ear infections and could not speak because he did not get a hearing screen. When the child did finally receive a hearing screen through Save the Children, it was already too late.

“When we miss providing comprehensive sex education, reliable birth control, early childhood interventions … we drop the ball,” he said.

In terms of personal initiative, we need to fix an “empathy gap,” said Kristof. “In America, the wealthiest 20% of Americans donate less to charity as a percentage of income than the poorest 20% do.” One reason is that the rich may be “insulated” from poverty, he said — in other words, the rich typically see need as a mere abstraction, and thus cultivate a lack of empathy, leading to less charity donations for the poor. A brain scan study done at Princeton showed that successful people who looked at images of the poor and homeless saw them not as people … but as things, Kristof told the audience. In contrast, the poor, who live in the reality of poverty, both see and experience the hardships of poverty and thus are more empathetic and willing to help their fellow neighbor, he added.

Kristof said he believes that the news media can do a more effective job of “shining the spotlight” on critical issues. The challenge here, he noted, lies in the fact that, at least in the television broadcast world, viewership may drop when journalists and reporters cover these critical issues. In fact, when the Gates Foundation offered financial support for ABC to cover these issues, ABC refused, arguing that when these programs appeared, people at home often changed the channel. “The problem today is that if you are the executive producer of a program, you can send somebody to South Sudan to cover the famine, or to cover Syrian refugees or even to cover poverty right here in the U.S. … but your viewership may very well drop compared to another channel that puts a Democrat and a Republican in a studio together and has them yell at each other. That’s the conundrum we face.”

Taking personal initiative is one way to solve this conundrum, Kristof said, urging listeners to connect to their own network of family and friends through effective storytelling in order to raise awareness and build empathy for struggling people. “All of you have your own spotlights,” Kristof remarked, “social media, book groups, dinner conversations with friends … these are spotlights we have to keep issues alive and if these issues are not spotlighted, then they will not be addressed and fixed.”

When later asked how we can be better storytellers, Kristof replied, “If you emphasize just the dreariness of things, that won’t work. People don’t want to be gloomy. You need to show a potential positive arc of how people can have an impact.”

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