A recent New York Times online report suggested that Americans should quit buying products made by poor people—because when people in the United States buy coffee, sugar, t-shirts, or tomatoes, they are guilty of exploiting impoverished workers.
The story quoted the executive director of a group called Art Works Projects: “Most people don’t look at their shirt and realize if they got a good deal on it, someone down the line has been seriously abused.” She later added, “If you purchased something, you’re part of the problem, but you’re immediately part of the solution because you can choose to not purchase it.”
Many Times readers understood the unstated implications of this proposed “solution” to poverty. Here are some of the unedited responses that were posted online:
If we didn’t buy these goods, the third world would have even fewer opportunities. America started out this way and we should not rush to judgement when others struggle to make a living.
So, okay, I stop drinking coffee and no longer use sugar. What then happens to the people who are now doing the work?
I read the first few graphs and realized what is missing from the lives of the people described…capital and capitalists!
Heart- and gut-wrenching story – but is the solution as simple as not buying that cup of coffee? Isn’t the immediate effect of that decision likely to be that the child laborer becomes an unemployed child laborer, with no income at all? Does that really improve their future? Please, let’s see some proposals for ways to improve that child’s future that don’t include unemployment and starvation.
I found the quote, “If you purchased something, you’re part of the problem, but you’re immediately part of the solution because you can choose to not purchase it,” very simplistic, because I’ve been in coffee fields and sugar cane fields in the Third World as well, enough to say that if you don’t purchase it, you’re punishing laborers. Not all situations are exploitative – they actually provide a means of subsistence for laborers – more than anything else they may have.
Data in The Index of Economic Freedom, published jointly by The Heritage Foundation and The Wall Street Journal, demonstrate that these New York Times readers are right. The best way to fight poverty is to allow people to be free—not to boycott products made by poor people.