Podcast interview with James Tooley on private schools meeting the needs of the poor

Recently I discovered the EconTalk podcast series, run by Russell Roberts of the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. Was delighted to see an hour long interview with James Tooley, author of A Beautiful Tree,  A Personal Journey into how the World’s Poorest People are Educating Themselves, which I’ve been reading. Great stuff here – most of us in the United States and Europe know private schools as almost exclusively for the wealthy.  His research provides ample evidence that this is not always true AT ALL.

EconTalk Podcast Series

EconTalk Podcast Series

Here is a quote from Mr. Tooley (thanks EconTalk for the transcript) to start you off:

I was in Hyderabad in South Central India. I was there doing consultancy work for the International Finance Corporation, the private arm of the World Bank. I was looking at elite private education, private education for the middle classes and the rich, because I’d become an expert in private education–that was my area of research. I was dissatisfied with this because for whatever reason, I was drawn to serving the poor. That’s what I felt my life should be about. And here I was looking at private education for the rich.

So, on a day off from my consultancy, I wandered down into the slums of the Old City; and sure enough–I had a hunch about what I might find, and I found a private school. A school, charging in those days what would be the equivalent of $1 U.S. dollar per month, serving a hundred children. I met these people; and then I wandered down another alleyway and found another school. And soon I was in contact with a federation of 500 of these low-cost private schools in these poor, largely Muslim areas of the old city of Hyderabad.

It was an amazing finding for me, because suddenly the two parts of my life came together. I could work concerning the poor, low income families and I could be exploring private education, too. But more than that, this seemed very exciting. Poor people were using private schools. Why? Why has no one told me about this? What’s going on here. And so I began a really exciting time in my life.

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Compassion in the early 1800’s United States – responsibility on both sides

I’m still going on Marvin Olasky’s book and get this – in the early 1800s, compassion and helping others was very much seen as an individual responsibility and everyone’s responsibility! Imagine that.  And those in need also had to take action to help themselves.

“It was important for the better-off to know the poor individually, and to understand their distinct characters.”

It’s worth noting that in these days, communities were smaller, and people KNEW each other.  He also talks about how the sermon at church was the primary means of mass communication, and “the need to offer personal help and hospitality became a frequent subject of sermons” in colonial days.

“Congregationalist and Presbyterian sermons regularly noted that faith without works of compassion was dead. (p.7, Ch 1)”

So it was a societal expectation, back then given that most everyone practiced religion, that you had to help others if you could.

Here’s what he says:

1. If someone got sick or had a tragedy happen to their family, other people in the community would look after them completely. They’d give their time doing chores or cooking meals. They’d take in orphaned children and help women who were widowed.

2. “Decent Living” was a prerequisite to being helped!  This meant that a) you had to be a moral person (not a drunk, abuser, thief, etc.) AND that b) you had to work if you could. If someone was seen as lazy and not willing to help themselves, they wouldn’t keep giving them aid.

“The able-bodied could readily find jobs in a growing agricultural economy; when they chose not to, it was considered perfectly appropriate to pressure them to change their minds.”

Aha. Makes sense. We don’t really differentiate at ALL nowadays between a) people who are poor or struggling due to tragedies or due to being born into bad circumstances and b) people who are poor due to their own inaction and/or consistent bad choices, or due to not wanting to work.

Wow, it’s probably heresy to even write down that the second category exists. Funny isn’t it?

I’ve done a fair amount of self-development courses over my lifetime: did Landmark Education, have been to Byron Katie’s workshops, listened to Anthony Robbins, even in my teens went to SuperCamp down in LA., as my parents wanted to help me see the possibilities for my life…ALL of these different approaches remind you that YOU and no one else is responsible for your life.  You can’t control external circumstances all the time (i.e. whether your husband has a subarachnoid hemorrhage when your son is 11 months old and won’t be able to work for the rest of his life). They tell you to focus on what you CAN do, what you can control -your own goals, motivations, actions, outlook.

So when I see non-profits with a goal ‘to end poverty in the world’…my first thought is always you can’t rid of all poverty!  You can’t stop or prevent the poverty that comes from being able to sit on the couch all day, watching TV or surfing the web and not taking any action.  I could choose to stop going to work, just watch movies and play with my kids all day.  I’d eventually get fired, lose my job…I could make our family poor in about 6 months; probably less, if I bought a lot of stuff online, took out some credit cards…Individual choice of course impacts whether someone is poor or not.

Most of the dialogue around fighting poverty doesn’t ever mention this, does it?  But labeling people as lazy or irresponsible and writing them off is judgmental, self-righteous, and unproductive.  I can imagine that in the 1800’s, you could get labeled as a ‘good-for-nothing’ and then be in big doo doo. We COULD, however, ensure that people are active participants in turning their lives around, that they build a growth/empowered mindset, and that there are consequences for their choices. That sounds like a good idea.

One recent example where the charity organization DOES require people to show individual responsibility:  Homeboy Industries, led by Father Boyle, in Los Angeles.  I’ve read his book, Tattoos on the Heart: the Power of Boundless Compassion.  If former gang members want to turn their lives around, Homeboy Industries requires them to make commitments in exchange.  If they are late or don’t show up to work X times (I can’t remember the exact number) they will be let go. And they have to attend life skills classes too.  Homeboy Industries requires that they are active contributors in turning their situations around. (I think I’ve recalled the details correctly; apologies if it’s not 100 accurate, though.) I was lucky enough to hear Father Boyle talk a few years ago at an IABC Los Angeles event.)Father Boyle is a Jesuit priest, by the way, for those of you who now distrust and dismiss Christianity as a force for good.

Thoughts? What other orgs are out there where they have recipients actively participate?  Habitat for Humanity, certainly.

Poverty Relief – government programs vs. private

Mark Pennington.  Robust Political Economy

My notes on reading the part on Poverty Relief –

Universal system of poverty relief vs a mosaic combining private mutual aid societies and charity.

Common objections against private sector –

won’t be enough charity and help. People won’t voluntarily help.

Won’t be the right kind of help – community – people fund their local community, not poorest that need most help. people/communities who need help may not be good at getting it (I’m thinking Mountain View PTA here vs. other schools, Malcolm Gladwell’s bit about middle class teaching their kids to get what they want and Oppenheimer example).

People won’t help themselves. People forced to pay social security for example, won’ t have discipline on their own to do it privately (will spend it, not save for old age).

Moving welfare aid back to private sector – Steve DeCanio’s thought:  it’s too late; no savings, no family ties, bad schools, people not used to looking after themselves and won’t be capable of doing it.  A lot of what helped people in the past no longer there.

Is poverty alleviation a collective good? with a small number of causes? Or an individual condition that takes individual action to alleviate? Is a “War on Poverty” a damaging paradigm that de-emphasizes individual effort?

Voluntaristic form of collective action = less susceptible to moral hazard. Gov’t schemes – you get vested interests needing status quo,  and supressing innovation

gov’t vs private anti-poverty schemes.

1. countries with no gov programs do not necessarily have more poverty:

Hong Kong (no gov’t) – same as Sweden (high gov’t relief)

Sweden (high gov’t relief) has less poverty than France (comparable gov’t relief)

“A voluntarist approach combining mutual aid, one-to-one assistance and donations to charitable bodies would enable a plurality of actors, each with specialized knowledge, to tailor their poverty alleviation efforts to specific individual contexts” p 164

universal solutions stifle innovation and macdonaldize the issue. Like healthcare. (Alternatives to status quo very difficult to test and even more difficult to take hold. Would Kahn Academy, Lynda.com, Tom’s Shoes,  ever have been possible through gov’t?)