Neutralizing the Matthew Effect

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Rodallie S. Mosende, photo by Rick Rocamora (view this and more photos here)

It was her timid smile that caught my attention — the way she seemed to light up from the inside, captured perfectly in a black and white photograph. That, juxtaposed with the longish title “This Filipina Who Grew Up in Quiapo As A Beggar Graduates from College!” How did she do it?

All her life, Rodallie Mosende, 19, considered the crowded and busy Paterno Street in Quiapo home. Her mother is a street vendor with her small movable shop set up right beside the pavement which also serves as their living space. In 2011, multi-awarded photojournalist Rick Rocamora met Rodallie while documenting the homeless of Quiapo. His photos of Rodallie, along with her story, got featured in local newspapers. Benefactors came forward to shoulder expenses for her college education. Rocamora’s photos of Rodallie’s day to day life tell a compelling story and are worth viewing. Last April 23, 2016, Rodalie graduated from the Lyceum University of the Philippines with a degree in International Hospitality Management specializing in cruise line operation and hotel services.

Rocamora’s photos were exhibited in a show at the Ayala Museum entitled “Blood, Sweat, Hope and Quiapo: The Rodallie S. Mosende Story” and are also available in a book under the same title.

There are thousands of other impoverished but hardworking students like Rodallie, but their names will never be known, nor will they ever even get to see a fourth of the good fortune enjoyed by Rodallie. I felt queasy reading the ending note to one of the articles on Rodallie: “And to Sir Rick Rocamora, mabuhay po kayo for inspiring all of us: students, photographers, children, and citizens of the Philippines. You made us believe that all dreams are possible to achieve — even the ones sown in the corners of the streets.” Rodallie’s story is certainly heartening, yes, and I am happy for her and her family. But is it true that all dreams are possible?

Malcolm Gladwell in his book Outliers: The Story of Success wrote “People don’t rise from nothing… It is only by asking where they are from that we can unravel the logic behind who succeeds and who doesn’t.” If Rick Rocamora never saw Rodallie, how likely would it be for Rodallie to find a way to pay for a college education and graduate? There are some factors that certainly worked in her favor. I have no doubt that Rodallie was an industrious high school student. It was probably Rocamora’s photos of her studying on the streets before it got too dark that moved her benefactors. It also didn’t hurt that she has an eminently photographable face. But at the same time, I also ask, didn’t she just get lucky?

In one of our afternoon walks, my husband and I were discussing current approaches to development work (particularly in the Philippines)s. Next to sporadic feeding programs, education is one of the more favored interventions for poverty alleviation. Teach people how to fish and they are supposed to have fish for life. If this is the case, how successful have international and local non-government organizations been in changing the lives of the beneficiaries of their educational programs? And is it really basic education alone that gives people access to opportunities? We tried to think about our own experiences and that of similar others: how much of the opportunities that were available to us were because of our social standing and the network and the connections we already had? Well-off people can offset the government cut-backs on education and send their kids to private schools and tutoring. They can afford to go to elite universities where they meet other well-off people in their circles who open doors for them.

Gladwell confirmed our suspicion that plain good old education may not be the only thing at work. Already successful people are likely to be given the kind of special opportunities that lead to even further success. They “are products of history and community, of opportunity and legacy. Their success is not exceptional or mysterious. It is grounded in a web of advantages and inheritances, some deserved, some not, some earned, some just plain lucky – but all critical to making them who they are.”

Sociologists call this the Matthew effect or the accumulative advantage of economic capital. Coined by Robert K. Merton in 1968, it is derived from a verse in the Parable of the Talents: “For whoever has will be given more, and he will have in abundance. But the one who does not have, even what he has will be taken away from him.” (Matthew 25:29) In short, the rich do get richer and the poor, poorer.

While I was genuinely impressed by Rodallie’s achievement, I was uneasy with the way reporters, writers, and readers of such stories accepted the status quo — some people get lucky and hopefully, one day, you/I too will get lucky. These stories normalize unrealistic expectations and make public investment unattractive. Why should I pay for public investments right now? It is okay to be poor because one day, I too will get my lucky break and when I do, I don’t want to have to share.

Awareness of our bias to attribute internal characteristics or personal qualities to our/other’s successes makes us realize that being the brightest, most industrious, or the most talented one does not guarantee success. We need to start thinking about success in terms of community. Only then can we begin to build a better world in which opportunities are available to all and not just the random few. In Robert H. Frank’s (author of Success and Luck: Good Fortune and the Myth of Meritocracy) words, “Being born in a good environment is an enormously lucky thing and one of the only lucky things we can help determine for future generations. Basically, we get to decide, to some extent, how lucky our children will be.”

We need a holistic approach (Again, think community. Think Nordic countries). An education program alone is not enough. Feeding programs are not enough. A family should not have to decide whether to allocate meager family funds towards the healthcare of another family member, or the education of another, or whether funds should go into putting food on the table for everyone. One-off and perfunctory programs may do more harm because they make the general public feel complacent that enough is being done and they excuse the government from what should be their job. We need massive public investments for material, educational and social infrastructure. Socialist and progressive reforms make that sucess accessible to all and not just a lucky few.

Rodallie should not be an exception. Her story should be the norm.

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