Pancakes and Poverty

My 2½ year old son and I like making pancakes in the morning. We like eating them too, but making them is really way cool. He supervises the mixing of the batter. "Don't over-mix, Daddy!" he reminds me (all true flapjack chefs know that over-mixed batter makes rubbery cakes). He deposits the first bit of batter in the pan, and recently he has begun to learn flipping. Often while I cook subsequent panfuls, he plays in the kitchen sink, and I have a few moments to sip coffee and think.

His Mom and I do our best to take care of our kid. We reconfigured our lives to make sure we were ready and able to give him our very best attentions. We worry if he doesn't feel like eating. We make sure he hasn't outgrown his shoes. We feel for fevers. We sing, walk, play, tell stories, name things, explain processes; we frequent three libraries. None of this is heroic, of course. We do what parents are expected to do: take the best possible care of their kids. Children are our hopes, our loves -- it's our job to do right by them and they owe us nothing in return. All they have to do is grow, and gain an identity.

We do not think kindly -- do we? -- of those who disregard their children. We cluck judgementally at parents who we consider to be too young, or too irresponsible. We are horrified at parents who abandon, neglect, malign or misuse their children. Let's consider a few examples. What about a parent who habitually leaves lead paint chips and stagnant, scummy water around for a kid to consume? Or perhaps one who lolls in fur coats while the kids have no blankets? Or forces a child to go out and work, while the parent sits at home watching TV? Or perhaps even blames the child for his own poverty?

Yet as a community we have not done so very well by our children. Tens of millions of children die each year due to diseases borne by unsanitary drinking water and lack of sewage facilities. A quarter of the children in the world today lack adequate shelter. And multitudes of kids are forced to fend for themselves, lacking support from parents who are unemployed, or ill, or absent -- ground down by their own poverty until they can no longer function as parents.

It is striking how much attention we pay to our own children, and to the parenting standards of those in our own community, while disasters of such mind-addling proportion are going on around us. Perhaps there isn't too much we can do, in the short term anyway. Like Scarlett O'Hara, we just cannot think of it today, we'll go mad if we do! But it is not healthy to be in too much denial for too long. Kids are kids, and the majority of them in the world today are forced to live in appalling hardship.

Seeing this, we immediately seek refuge in the notion of the parents' irresponsibility. They simply shouldn't be having children if they can't provide for them. All those people in Bangladesh should look around them and see how selfish it is to create another mouth to feed, when so many go hungry. Before those crazy young couples in Mexico City have more kids, they should work hard, save their pesos and buy a few acres in the campo, ¿Si?

But there's one problem with that argument: it's irrelevant. It's never the kid's fault, no matter how "irresponsible" its parents might have been. Does the child not have rights of its own?

My kid                    

        Someone else's kid

We have to realize that more money, energy and resources is spent on taking photographs of children in the United States than goes toward feeding them in the world's LDCs. What about the millions upon millions of acres squandered on subsidized meat production? The insane wars over natural resources, fought with the leftover weapons of the cold war, that result in starving refugees?

It was once a sort of hip, existential-despair sort of thing to say, "How could I bring a child into such a hopeless world as this?" I think of that as we flip our pancakes. There's nothing hopeless about the world. The world provides for its children with abundant generosity. The hand-wringing about the Earth's "carrying capacity" is misplaced. The world can never can be overpopulated while so many resources go wasted, while the top ten per cent live in such luxury and feel so free to throw their garbage wherever they wish.

Proliferation of hungry children, and destruction of the natural environment, are not parts of the natural order of things, as Malthus and his later-day enthusiasts would have you believe. That is a formula for despair. Human beings are not a cancer on this planet. The world would not be better off without us. Would the world be a better place without the paintings of Cezanne, the music of the Davis/Coltrane quintet, the polio vaccine, or those two little guys pictured above? No. It is up to us to fashion social institutions that are worthy of us, our children and our best achievements. How do we do that? That, too, is known. Ignorance is no excuse.

Lindy Davies -- September 22, 1999

What Folks Have Been Saying

What a beautiful, articulate statement on the worth of our children and the monstrous challenge we all face in making things right. As a parent I believe the most valuable contribution I've made to my child was in going beyond the standard required by our supposed system of higher education by making sure that thorough going familiarity with and study of the economic and social philosophy of Henry George preceded college. I would have always felt that I had shortchanged myself, my child, and the prospects for a creating a better social order. BTW, did you catch Michael Kinsley - now editor of - on CSpan on 9/20/99 with Brain Lamb saying that Henry George was his favorite economist?
Richard Biddle <[email protected]>
Cold Point, PA USA - Saturday, September 25, 1999 at 12:46:34 (EDT)
It is very hard to see how people just compare and already feel sorry for the poor. Well, I am a Financial Engineer, just graduated last week and still cant find a job. I was a child like one in the picture of the article only 15 or 20 years ago; but now, I am 23, and Im just beginning to realize how difficult it is to live in a third worl country. I do not pretend to be selfish or anytning like that, it is only that every time I go out to my cis streets, I see hundreds of homeless kids that try to survive everyday. No body takes care of them, no one even gives them proper education or the most elemental needs (shelter, food, water, health care ) I really feel helpless and definitly can not understand how any economical theory can be apllied to thousands of ecuadorian kids who dont have any expectations in life.
Miguel Muriel <[email protected]>
Quito, Ecuador - Sunday, September 26, 1999 at 01:27:14 (EDT)
On this page in the fifth sentence of the fifth paragraph, you have a typo. It says "The world can never can be"
me <no spam, thanks.>
where I am, OO USA - Thursday, October 14, 1999 at 20:32:07 (EDT)
Nope, that's not a typo. The world never can be overpopulated. There can be too many poor people, yes -- and there can certainly be too much unsustainable resource use and pollution. But what the hand-wringing neo-Malthusians call "overpopulation" is a symptom of those problems, not their cause.
Lindy Davies
- Tuesday, October 19, 1999 at 10:06:49 (EDT)
i have no comments
verdine sims
waukegan , il USA - Friday, October 22, 1999 at 21:03:47 (EDT)
love the site...very interesting stuff....and exciting site design...keep it up!
geoff shepherd <[email protected]>
salisbury, wiltshire uk - Thursday, October 28, 1999 at 17:49:02 (EDT)
I read your article and agree every bit of it. I migrated from India and I have seen them all. Every time I think about it, I feel like doing something. The only way to do something is by putting the heads together and come up with a plan (ofcourse, there are already hundreds of projects to help) to handle these problems in a very new way to work in the New Millenium. Thank You.
Satya N. Doddi <[email protected]>
FOREST HILLS, NY - Friday, October 29, 1999 at 16:39:23 (EDT)
Wow! I'm so glad you all have made this resource available. I was very pleased to score high on the quiz " could teach us something..." but would really liked to have seen some stats on how respondents score. Regarding "Pancakes and Poverty", I think I understand the arguments that point to overpopulation as being a symptom but still find myself seeing it as a cause also. Maybe not a root cause but a secondary factor. For an example of land tenure done quite well look at the Cook Islands. Land can only be inherited or leased. It can not be purchased. Although not without problems this policy has kept the land in the hands of the local indigenous population. However population growth has still put hugh pressures on quality of life and most Cook Islanders actually live in New Zealand. Sorry for the rambling message but I wanted to point out at least one example where (IMHO) reasonable land use laws existed but where population is taking a toll on quality of life.
Matt Welland <[email protected]>
Richmond, VT USA - Tuesday, November 09, 1999 at 15:28:22 (EST)
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