Sunday, January 29, 2012

Fear of poverty, part 2

There are lots of ways to measure poverty. In the US the poverty line is $10,890 for one person. The global figure often used is $2 a day. There are a host of other ways to measure it, either in absolute terms or compared to other people.

Numbers can help us approximate what people's experiences are like, but ultimately what matters is the experiences themselves and not the numbers.

Jeff and I together spend about $20,000 a year. If we actually earned that much, we would be below the United States poverty line and would have more spending money because we'd get free health insurance and food stamps. On paper, then, our spending makes us look like poor people.

So how does our subjective experience compare to actual poverty?

The World Bank did an interesting study on the experiences of poor people around the world. Their findings:
"Experiences of illbeing include material lack and want (of food, housing and shelter, livelihood, assets and money); hunger, pain and discomfort; exhaustion and poverty of time; exclusion, rejection, isolation and loneliness; bad relations with others, including bad relations within the family; insecurity, vulnerability, worry, fear and low self-confidence; and powerlessness, helplessness, frustration and anger. . . . Illbeing includes mental distress, breakdown, depression and madness, often described by participants to be impacts of poverty."
If that's what poor people experience, what about us? Does spending like poor people carry the same effects as actual poverty?

No. Jeff and I experience a few of the inconveniences of a small budget (mostly related to not owning a car). But we have most of the benefits of the money we earn without actually spending it all. We always have plenty of good food. We never worry about whether we can make our rent. We enjoy good relationships with family and friends. We have savings. We got good educations and have similar social status to what we would have if we kept all our money.

Some people are afraid to give because they're afraid of being poor. Which is a reasonable fear – real poverty is an exhausting, humiliating, painful experience. But it is not what you will experience as a result of giving away a lot of your money.

Real poverty is not a choice. Living frugally is a choice Jeff and I make freely, and one we find worthwhile.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Fear of poverty

Last spring, my husband Jeff found that walking to work barefoot helped his knee problems. Once he built up callouses, walking on city sidewalks was no problem. One day as he was walking a pair of teenage girls, perhaps Brazilian or Cape Verdean, shouted, "Where are your shoes?"

"They're at home," he answered.

"Aren't you ashamed?" they asked.

This story still stuns me. Jeff and I grew up in situations where going barefoot was a marker of summer relaxation, not poverty. But to these girls, who had perhaps grown up in places where not everyone had shoes, going voluntarily barefoot was crazy.

People have told me, "You obviously didn't grow up poor." It's true - I might not want to live on a small budget if I had always had to do it. In a way, it's easier for Jeff and me to live simply because for us it's always been a choice, not a necessity. We grew up knowing that our parents could provide for all our needs, so we don't have a built-in fear of deprivation.

Here's the thing: you don't have to care about the same status markers other people do. Other people can be ashamed about secondhand clothes or whatever they want, but they can't choose what you feel ashamed of.

I know this confirms me as a total sap, but I love Dolly Parton's song "Coat of Many Colors." She describes her classmates' scorn for the coat her mother had pieced together from rags:

And I couldn't understand it
For I felt I was rich
And I told them of the love
My momma sewed in every stitch
And I told them all the story
Momma told me while she sewed
And how my coat of many colors
Was worth more than all their clothes.

Although Parton is now a multimillionaire, she really did grow up in a mountain cabin with no plumbing or electricity, and the coat story is apparently true. I find her message - that family love mattered more to her happiness than material goods - an important one.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Happy thought for the day

Today I learned that Jonas Salk and Albert Sabin, inventors of the polio vaccines that saved millions of people from paralysis and death, refused to patent their inventions. They could have made an enormous profit, but instead the vaccines were their gift to the world.

When asked who owned the patent, Salk answered, "No one. Could you patent the sun?"

I'm totally charmed.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

My pick

In the last weeks, I've been working on the decision of where to give money this year.  Recently I:
  • Met with staff at Oxfam America from their monitoring and evaluation team (full disclosure: I used to work there as an administrative assistant)
  • Met with staff at Poverty Action Labs
  • Spoke with Holden Karnofsky from GiveWell
After hearing three different perspectives, I have a lot of thoughts.

One concern Oxfam raised, which I hadn't thought about before, is that basic health work really ought to be the concern of governments or local organizations, not international charities. GiveWell notes a similar concern. One Oxfam staff member pointed out that Americans would be upset if the Swiss started coming in and building roads or laying pipe, because we pay our government to do those things. Oxfam does some nice work encouraging government and corporate accountability, pushing for transparency so that citizens can ask their governments, “This money was budgeted for services to us – where did it go?”

And yet Oxfam and others do step in when a government's irresponsibility leads to disaster – as when a breakdown of sanitation systems led to a cholera outbreak in Zimbabwe in 2008. The government was obviously at fault – they had failed to maintain existing hospitals, or to buy enough chlorine to treat the water system – but international NGOs stepped in rather than watch millions of people die.

This happens on a slower, less obvious scale all the time. Whether from incompetence, corruption, or generally being screwed over by colonization, many nations do not meet their citizens' basic needs. If there were a charity that seemed really effective at getting governments to shape up, I might well support it. But I'm not convinced that most governments are going to get their acts together anytime soon, so I'd rather take action now.

If I could design a perfect nonprofit, it would be one that empowers local people to have more control over their lives. This might be through lots of means – gender equality, education, safe water, good nutrition, sustainable land use, access to healthcare, access to markets, government accountability, an end to violence, an end to economic policies that disadvantage poor people. The ultimate goal, after all, is for people to be able to take care of themselves and their families. Also, this perfect nonprofit would be monitoring its progress and learning from its mistakes.

I think Oxfam and others are doing good work on many of these problems. But at this point, they're also doing a lot of other things that I don't think are as worthwhile – disaster relief, work in the US, projects that haven't really been evaluated or whose evaluations aren't released.

So for this year, I'll be donating to Against Malaria Foundation. They're highly recommended by both GiveWell and Giving What We Can. I have mixed feelings about the decision, since I would prefer to fund something with a broader strategy. Malaria prevention does seem to help development in some ways, since kids who aren't sick or dead from malaria can grow up healthier, and adults can be more productive at whatever they're doing if they're not sick. But the bottom line is that bednets are a cheap way to prevent sickness and death of a lot of people.

I think this is a good choice, and that there are other good choices out there (including Oxfam). I expect to reevaluate this every year, so maybe next year there will be a better one out there.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

A day in the life

Recently Anatoly Vorobey asked his audience for opinions on the essay I wrote for Bolder Giving. Surprisingly to me, it got hundreds of comments. (If you don't read Russian, you may find a rough translation helpful.)

Commenters' opinions ranged from “Commendable” to “Excessive fanaticism” to “Behind such altruism usually lurk serious problems, lack of meaning in life, and great tension” and, my favorite, “Most likely the extreme result of brainwashing or disease.”

The part they found most shocking was that I said Jeff and I weren't sure about having children. This, apparently, indicates a really twisted mind. Someone nominated us for a Darwin award, commenting that at least we wouldn't pass on our altruistic sickness. Some were more pragmatic (“If you give birth, let's see you deny your child ice cream for higher goals.”)

I found this all pretty amusing. And so I want to give you a taste of the twisted life we fanatics lead. Yesterday, for example:

Saturday, January 7

We lay in bed for a while and then took down our Christmas tree. I made blackcurrant muffins for breakfast.

Later in the morning, some of Jeff's musician friends came over and they played music for a few hours. I made lunch and we ate with them.

In the afternoon, Jeff went to the grocery store while I took a long bath and read a novel. (Like most people in the world, we don't have a car, so we chose an apartment within walking distance of a grocery store. We carry the groceries in a wire cart.)

We took a nap.

In the evening, Jeff's parents came over to dinner. We spent a while admiring our housemates' baby, then we ate and talked for a few hours. After dinner we had tea and tiramisu.

After they left, Jeff did the dishes while I read aloud from a book of Sherlock Holmes stories. Then we lay in bed reading for a while and went to sleep.

Yes, it is into this perverse life of self-deprivation that we may someday bring a child!

Monday, January 2, 2012

Picking a cause

As you can tell, I'm a fan of GiveWell and Giving What We Can because they're the only people I know of evaluating charities' effectiveness. One problem I have with their method is that it's very measurement-focused, so any type of work that isn't easily measurable just doesn't get considered. People like to point out that the GiveWell approach would have had us medicating polio forever rather than funding research for a cure.

I think there may be causes it makes sense to fund even if we're not sure how effective they will be. Here are some types of charities I've seen advocated by people who are serious about effective donation. In no particular order:

Animal charities
I've seen arguments that if we care about reducing suffering, we should think about the planet's most numerous beings that can experience pain – that is, animals. The charities I know of in this focus on convincing people to stop using animal products or researching how to grow artificial meat. I put some weight on animals' suffering, but less than on people's, and I don't know how to compare the two. So my hunch is I should probably eat less meat, but that this is not the best place for my donation.

Direct health work
The charities recommended by GiveWell and Giving What We Can are all doing public health work in developing countries. As far as definitely saving lives for cheap, this is as provable as it gets.

There's an argument that public health work speeds economic development, because people can do everything better when they're not sick.

International development
I think there's a good argument that development (putting in roads, improving water systems, etc.) is more helpful than more direct medical interventions. This has the appeal of the whole “teach a man to fish” thing.

However, it's hard to tell how effective this is. And the charities that do it, like Oxfam, also do a lot of other stuff that's probably less effective, like disaster relief. So you can't really fund it by itself.

Existential risk
Some people are most concerned about risks that might wipe out the entire human population. This might be things like asteroid strikes, nuclear war, pandemics, or super-smart computers taking over everything. This last one, called a "technical singularity", sounded very far-fetched to me at first, but I've learned more about it and I do think it's a real possibility. Some of these things (like nuclear war) aren't necessarily “existential” in that some people might survive them, but would still be very bad.

There are some sensible measures that have been put in place, like seed banks and telescopes to look for asteroids. There's certainly more we could do. The problem with this type of work is that it's hard to guess how likely the risks are, and it's hard to know how effective we might be at preventing them.

The people I know who fund artificial intelligence research believe a friendly and super-intelligent computer would be especially good because it could not only help us solve current problems, but could also make life much better for people. Their argument goes: “A small chance of a really, really good future is still worth funding.” A counterargument goes, “We have no idea how likely any of this is, so it's better to fund something we understand better."

I don't know how to think about this.

A vaccine for malaria or HIV would be pretty awesome.

Even on a smaller scale, research is essential to knowing how programs are going. For example, there's been a lot of excitement about microfinance, but how well does it work? How could we do it better? Having data on this sort of thing helps charities know what to do and helps donors know what to fund. Innovations for Poverty Action and Poverty Action Lab are the two organizations that I know of.

GiveWell and some existential risk charities could also be considered research charities.

Activism and politics
Changing policies has huge potential to help people who need it. In developed countries, everything from crop subsidies to wars have life-or-death consequences for people around the world. But it's so expensive to swing an election or hire lobbyists that it's unclear whether this is a good use of charity dollars.

A fairly technical look at this question

Saving money
I've heard a few serious donors say we should save money in case a really excellent cause becomes clear. I find giving is a habit that's pretty easy to maintain once you're in the groove, and I don't want to hoard money only to find I've grown unwilling to give it up once a golden opportunity comes along. So I'm not keen on this one. But I could see donating some to keep in practice and saving/investing some money.

Some more thoughts on this

I can donate money to the best causes I can find, but if I convince other people to do the same, that's even better! (Obviously, that's my goal on this site). Organizations like GiveWell, 80,000 Hours, and Giving What We Can are devoted to getting people to give more, and more effectively. I'm glad they exist, but I'm not sure what they would do with additional funding.

The upshot
Thinking about these causes is hard. I don't know for sure which is best, and I don't think anyone else really does either. But even thinking about this stuff is moving us in the right direction. Recently, parting at the subway after an evening of discussing optimal charity, a friend's exhausted summation was “People should think and be nice.” And I do believe more thinking and more trying to help will lead us in the right direction. If one of these options, or a new option, becomes more clearly a good choice, we'll be readier to recognize that and pursue it. We should be willing to change our minds.

In the meantime, I intend to make a donation sometime in January. I'm most strongly considering a direct healthcare charity (Against Malaria Foundation) or a research charity (Poverty Action Labs). Do you have thoughts about why I should pick one of these, or something else?