I’ve criticized Washington Post journalists over the years, but two have broken out of the liberal bubble and written pungent books about lives among the poor. Former Post reporter Leon Dash, a founder of the National Association of Black Journalists, lived in inner-city Washington, D.C., for a year and then wrote When Children Want Children: The Urban Crisis of Teenage Childbearing (Penguin, 1990). That book broke through conventional pieties about attitudes among the poor, and now I praise another: Former Post reporter Katherine Boo’s Behind the Beautiful Forevers (Random House, 2012), which in November won a National Book Award.
Dash, living in “the projects,” interviewed his teenage subjects three times and was almost ready to run with their lines about becoming pregnant because “they lacked knowledge about birth control methods.” Only in the sixth interview did they start telling the truth: They purposefully became pregnant because they felt purposeless and unloved, and with a baby could get a monthly welfare check that would make them independent of parents and boyfriends.
Dash’s great journalistic achievement came after he became part of a community and spent hundreds of hours listening. Boo did the same, becoming a fixture in Annawadi, a makeshift slum in the shadow of an upscale international airport in India. Children-turned-cynics finally opened up to her about how they had learned the games adults play: “Though Sunil was not an orphan, he understood that phrases like AIDS orphan and When I was the second-hand woman to Mother Teresa” would enable a nun to get money from foreigners. Boo shows that Sunil “knew why he and the other children received ice cream only when newspaper photographers came to visit, and why food and clothing donated for the children got furtively resold outside the orphanage gate.”
Boo spent so much time in Annawandi that she saw again and again the shows put on by a community organizer, Asha, who was herself “a chit in a national game of make believe. … When foreign journalists came to Mumbai to see whether self-help groups were empowering women, government officials sometimes took them to Asha. Her job was to gather random female neighbors to smile demurely while the officials went on about how their collective had delivered them from poverty. Manju [Asha’s daughter] would then be paraded in as Asha delivered the clinching line: ‘And now my girl will be a college graduate, not dependent on any man.’ The foreign women always got emotional when she said this.”
Boo also wrote about corruption not by reading official reports but by seeing how it made a difference in lives: When one man needed a heart valve, “Mumbai’s public hospitals were supposed to do such operations for next to nothing, but the hospital surgeons wanted under-the-table money.” Was the government committed to lending money at subsidized rates to poor entrepreneurs? Nice idea, but in practice “a slum dweller would request a loan for an imaginary business; a local government official would certify how many jobs it would bring to a needy community; and an executive of the state-owned Dena Bank would approve it. Then the official and the bank manager would take a hunk of the loan money.”
Behind the Beautiful Forevers is a book about people, not policy, so I don’t want to make it seem like a manual about international aid or one proposing that donors be tight-fisted—but we should also be discerning rather than emotional, and should give only to people and groups with proven records. It’s generally better to give through churches than to respond to media appeals or trust governmental bureaucracies. We can never be sure—giving requires faith—but we can work to avoid thieves who pose as saints, and schools that close “as soon as the leader of the nonprofit had taken enough photos of children studying to secure the government funds.”