I try to use raw statistics to get a sense of what life is like in other places. This helps me avoid the selective nature of stories, though stories have their place after the numbers are in.
Here, a startling overview from Chris Blattman et al, in a survey of young Liberian men thought to be engaged in criminal behavior:
“On average the men were age 25, had nearly eight years of schooling, earned about $40 in the past month working 46 hours per week (mainly in low skill labor and illicit work), and had $34 saved. 38% were members of an armed group during the two civil wars that ravaged the country between 1989 and 2003. 20% reported selling drugs, 44% reported daily marijuana use, 15% reported daily use of hard drugs, 53% reported stealing something in the past two weeks, and 24% reported they were homeless.”
The entire paper is worth reading, and quite readable. Turns out that people are very honest in answering survey questions about “sensitive” behaviors when those behaviors are the norm within their social groups.
(The paper also provides a good lens for looking at cash transfers. In the hands of a man with $34 in the bank, who earns $40 a month, $500 might be enough to prevent multiple acts of theft or purchase a stable home. On the other hand, I’d guess that these men are more likely to spend some of the money on hard drugs than are families in rural villages.)