The rebellion in the poverty-stricken Mexican state of Chiapas has dramatized the inequality in living standards in a country trying to promote rapid economic development. Third World nations that neglect the education, training, and health of the poor perpetuate divisions that may tear apart their social fabric.
At a recent education conference in Brazil, I argued that economic development cannot be sustained when a nation neglects elementary education for a sizable part of its population. Education lets young persons from poor backgrounds acquire the skills to rise in the world, and it reduces the tendency for inequalities in wealth to be perpetuated from one generation to the next. The example of the so-called Asian tigers--Hong Kong, Korea, Singapore, and Taiwan--is instructive: Early in their development, they largely eliminated illiteracy and raised the schooling of the bottom stratum to decent levels.
According to statistics compiled by Robert J. Barro of Harvard University, more than two-thirds of Brazilians over the age of 25 have less than four years of schooling, and a further one-fourth have none at all. The situation in Mexico is almost as bad. Education of the poor in both nations has greatly improved over the past two decades, yet even now fewer than one-third of teenage Brazilians are in school. The slums scattered throughout Rio de Janiero are filled with children who spend their time not in school but on the streets, terrorizing residents and visitors with burglaries and robberies.
The social problems from unequal education are often compounded by racial differences: In Brazil, Mexico, and many other nations, wealth, education, and occupation are polarized along racial lines. The poor in Mexico are mainly Indians, while in Brazil they are primarily descendants of slaves brought from Africa.
SQUARE MEALS. Children from homes with poor, illiterate parents need schooling that addresses their special needs. My wife and I spent a day as the guests of Governor Leonel Brizola of the state of Rio de Janiero at one of several hundred schools in the state that were created during the past decade for poor children. Students in these schools get three meals and almost 10 hours of instruction and recreational activity a day, and they do their preparation in the classroom rather than at home. But since such schools are expensive to build--$1 million per school--as well as to operate, they are not the solution for poor
A better way to help poor families in the Third World (as well as elsewhere) would be through a tuition voucher system. Low-income parents would receive vouchers that help pay the tuition at any approved school that accepts their children. Participating schools could be required to provide nutritious meals and health checkups. Such vouchers would stimulate competition among public and private schools to improve the education and health of children who most need to be helped. Middle- and upper-income families have less need for tuition vouchers, for they often manage wherever they are to get decent schooling for their children.
Poor mothers and fathers usually want a better life for their children than they have had themselves, and many of them would choose schools wisely. Even some of those who care very much about their families, however, often force children to leave school early so that they can help contribute toward the meager household resources, even when that violates child-labor and minimum-schooling laws.
WASTE NOT. One way to provide incentives for poor parents to look out for their children's interests is to give them a bonus that offsets the income loss from keeping children out of the labor force. The bonus could be larger when the children attend school regularly, and it could even rise when the children receive good grades.
Apologists for the status quo claim that poor countries do not have the resources to raise the education of all their citizens to decent levels, and they believe international organizations such as the World Bank should finance the education of their poor. But governments in these countries usually spend a quarter or more of gross domestic product on financing deficits in inefficient state enterprises, on excessively expensive universities, and in many other wasteful ways.
The real obstacle to greater government spending by Third World countries on basic education, combating crime, and other important public activities is not their limited resources but the diversion of these governments from what should be their major priorities. They are too busy doing things that either should not be done at all--or that should be left to the private sector.
Countries such as Brazil and Mexico have enormous human energy and economic potential. But they will further delay their entry into the First World if they continue to pay insufficient attention to the schooling and health of their poor.