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Use evidence to fight poverty, Kristof says

NYT columnist urges state to take lead on solving social ills

TRIBUNE PHOTO: SHASTA KEARNS MOORE - On Monday, April 20, New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof told his audience of mostly Oregon Health & Science University students and staff that scientific studies - much like those used in medicine - are now being used to test social programs. The answer to global poverty might be closer and easier than you think.

That was the message from Nicholas Kristof, a New York Times columnist who returned to his old stomping grounds in the Portland area to give the fifth-annual Kathryn Robertson Memorial Lecture at Oregon Health & Science University on April 20.

Kristof said that while issues of poverty are complex, oftentimes the best and most effective solutions aren’t employed.

“There are no silver bullets anywhere, but there is silver buckshot,” he said. Kristof said he finds simple and cheap solutions that aren’t funded adequately, but that there is a dawning awareness of the need for scientific research on interventions.

“What matters at the end of the day is your impact, not your tax status,” he said of nonprofits.

Most recently, Kristof reported on three-foot-long nearly blind Gambian pouched rats that are being used to sniff out landmines and positive tuberculosis tests.

“And they work for bananas,” he said.

He argued that rather than spending hundreds of dollars per child to build a brick-and-mortar school, a vastly cheaper and more-effective means of educating children in some parts of the world is offering free food during the school day or even free doses of de-wormer to ensure that children are free from parasites and ready to concentrate.

While much of the lecture concentrated on issues in underdeveloped countries, Kristof also acknowledged the growing income gap in the United States and the need for more robust social programs here in Oregon.

“We certainly have issues of inequity here as well,” Kristof said.

He pointed to sex trafficking as a continuing major Portland problem.

“Traditionally the solution on the part of law enforcement was to arrest the victims, arrest the girls, which is just monstrously unfair,” he said, arguing pimps and johns should be the ones prosecuted. “If you go after johns, it’ll reduce demand.”

Kristof also noted emerging research on the importance of early childhood education — from prenatal care to birth to pre-kindergarten — and the benefits and savings to society from improved graduation rates and decreased jail time.

“As somebody who is very proud of my ties to Oregon, I would love to see Oregon be a real proving ground, a pioneer for some of these evidence-based interventions,” Kristof said.

Kristof, who grew up in the small farming community of Yamhill County southwest of Portland, started working at The New York Times in 1984. He travels the world — often bringing his family in tow — writing columns about global strife and poverty, as well as innovative solutions therein. Kristof and his wife, Sheryl WuDunn, recently published a call to action against poverty for the average citizen titled “A Path Appears.”

The lecture series was created to memorialize Robertson, the daughter of OHSU President Joseph Robertson Jr. The world traveler and multilinguist died Feb. 27, 2010, at the age of 25 after being hit by a train in The Dalles, Ore.