Wednesday, May 11, 2016

The Culture of Poverty

From "The Devil's Miner"
I watched a report by Mathias Meier in the New York Times entitled "Embracing Child Labor". Bolivia, my birthplace, has made it legal for children to begin working at ten years of age.  I must say I am shocked and saddened. I am shocked that this has barely received any press in the developed world, and I am saddened to think of what this will mean for the future of these beautiful people.

I understand the logic of the proponents of child labour. The families are starving, the children are working already, let's make sure that they at least get a fair wage. In fairness, child labour happens to some degree all over the world. Even in North America, on family farms children are expected to perform duties before and after school that are critical to keeping the farm running. The same is true in many family run businesses in Bolivia, but this is not what we are talking about here. Here we are talking about children working at hard labour (mining, brick making, etc), and though it is not supposed to interfere with schooling, one would have to be quite naive to think that it doesn't.

In the above story, Dr. Jorge Domic, the director of Fundaci├│n La Paz (a development NGO), says that child labour is part of the Andean culture, and especially Bolivian culture. I beg to differ. Culture is not what a people do, it is who a people are. Culture is the characteristics of a people that distinguishes them from their neighbours. Being hard working and industrious can be seen as cultural. Keeping a segment of one's population poor due to lack of education is not cultural. Despite the promise of a socialist revolution, it is the rich in Bolivia that are profiting from this move, not the poor. Oh sure, the poor will get a few extra pennies, and that will make a difference, but it will be just enough to keep them poor. And by legalizing child labour, families who would have otherwise obeyed the law and endured the hardship of poverty, might be tempted by the newly legalized source of income.

According to the CIA World Factbook, 45% of Bolivians live on less that $2 per day. The Factbook also points out that:
"Bolivia's income inequality is the highest in Latin America and one of the highest in the world. Public education is of poor quality, and educational opportunities are among the most unevenly distributed in Latin America, with girls and indigenous and rural children less likely to be literate or to complete primary school."
So there's your problem. A third of the population is under the age of 15, you have a low quality system of public education, and the access to public education is not universal. Now you are going to compound the problem by making it OK for children to work for pay starting at ten years of age (and their "union" is pushing for that age to be lower still). I like how Alex Rosen put it in his article on this topic in "No Se Mancha":
"If this is Bolivia’s best answer, then perhaps they have asked the wrong question."
What is needed is a break in the cycle of generational poverty. This can only be accomplished by a high quality, universal, public education system. President Morales has done his people a huge disservice.

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