Friday, October 24, 2008

How Much Is Enough?

Just a couple of days ago I posted an article explaining why I am a liberal Christian.  I've also been engaged in a debate on one of my boards as to which system is more moral, communism or capitalism.  I'm just not comfortable with the large gap between the have and the have nots we have.  Capitalism works well because it's based on people's basic instinct of working for reward and for wanting the best for ourselves.  You can't argue with the success of capitalism and consumerism when it comes to creating a robust productive economy.  Communism doesn't work.  When people are not accountable for their actions, they don't perform. Take away incentive and people stop working.  That's why communism doesn't work.  Capitalism is an every man for himself kind of system.  Without checks from a central authority (read government), capitalism can result in a system where the less privileged are left behind and even exploited.  I think a little "wealth distribution" is required.  But, how much is enough?

I've been pretty critical of the way we treat the poor in America.  Given the riches that most of us enjoy, I've said it's shameful that we allow so many to live in poverty. Just a couple of days ago the census bureau released a report that showed the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer. I was appalled.   However, someone recently pointed out to me that it's easy to criticize what we do for the poor, if we have no good definition of what poor is or what basic level of living we think we agree that we should provide for everyone. He also pointed out something that I really hadn't thought about.  Poverty is relative.  What we call the working poor in America would be rich in other parts of the world (in many other parts of the world). According to the Census Bureau's numbers, the poverty level for a family of four in America is roughly $20,000.  I think we'd all agree that living on $20,000 for a family of four would be a very difficult situation (that's an understatement).  But, compare that to the per capita (per person) income of several countries.

  • Burundi $88.82
  • Eritrea $145.39
  • Ethiopia $91.37
  • Tajikistan $153.77

Of course these are extreme cases.  But, check out this table of the per capita incomes of several nations. If you put our poverty level of around $20,000 on this chart, it far surpasses the average incomes of some places that I bet would surprise you.  Our poverty level is more than the average person in the world makes. 

I was watching 30 Days the other day and there was a family of illegal immigrants from Mexico on.  You might wonder why people would cross the border and give up everything to live in crowded apartments with no chances of getting a good job, working as illegal day laborers and selling aluminum cans to make a living.  When the guy who was doing the 30 Days went to see their former home in Mexico (basically a hut in the middle of a field with no running water, no electricity and a disgusting looking well several hundred yards away), he immediately understood.  In comparison to where they came from, these people were living like kings.

Something to consider when we're talking about the plight of the poor in this country is access to the basics like shelter, food, sanitation and water.   Honestly, no one in America is completely without access to any of these basics.  In other countries, people are truly homeless, living in cardboard boxes or on top of trash dumps.  In America, most of the people who are truly homeless (living without shelter) are mentally ill and we cannot force them into shelters until they are a threat to themselves or others.   People who want to find a bed can. There is free food available to people who truly need it. People might not get what they want or as much as they want. But, we do not allow people to starve to death. However, around the world 30,000 children die a day from starvation, starvation related diseases and lack of clean water.  That's one every 3 seconds.  Diarrhea kills millions of children a year.  Sanitation is something we take for granted.  Every day about 1/2 of the number of children included in the 30,000 number above die from the lack of something as simple as clean water.  Health care is another concern for the poor.  We don't have a great national health care system for the uninsured (which is a very scary thing).  But, again, even though the poor have a higher death rate and don't have great access to well care, no one that goes to a hospital is turned away for lack of money.  We spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on single patients to keep them alive.

I was chatting with someone the other day who pointed out his sister is not able to work because she is mentally ill.  He pointed out how close his sister was to not having access to shelter, food, medicine and health care.  Her medications alone would be $700/month.  But, there is a program that allows her to get them for $12.00/month.  He said she would be without shelter, but the family helps pay her rent.  He said she could be without health care, but she just got on the State health plan.  The bottom line is she does have the basics.  He pointed out she does not have Internet access though or the money to go to movies though and that life as a poor person still sucks.

I agree.  Life as a poor person sucks.  But, my question is "Just what are the basics?" I think we'd all agree that everyone should have access to food, clean water, shelter, clothing and medical care.  But, what type of shelter?  A house?  An apartment?  What type of food?  Should poor people be subsidized so that they can enjoy an evening at a restaurant?  How about entertainment?  Is Netflix a bare necessity that we should provide to everyone? 

I don't ask these questions to be facetious.  As long as we have an incentive based system, there is going to be a gap between the have and the have nots.  I long for the things that the next tier up from me can afford and I cannot.  There are things I want to do that I cannot afford.  There are things I'd like to give my children that I cannot give to them. Don't get me wrong. I'm not complaining. I have a great life.  But, there's always more I'll want and there will always be people who have so much more than I do.  So, the question is not if there will be gaps between the classes but how large of a gap is humane and how large of a gap are we comfortable with?

Bottom line to me when I put America in perspective with the rest of the world is this.  Things are not as bad as they could be for the poor.  But, perhaps they're not as good as they should be.

What do you think?

(originally published 09/07/06)


Tones said...

Interesting post Brian! It sounds a little contradictory to many of your arguments around the whole wealth distribution debate. I agree with much of what you say here. Yes, the definition of "poor" is relative.

I made a trip to Russia several years ago to help with a project where we bought an old communist youth camp and transformed it into a Christian camp. What an experience! We had two Russian escorts with us most of the time that had both spend much time in the US. We got to talking and I asked them whether or not they would choose living poor (as they were in Russia) or move to the US where they would most definitely be successful and certainly middle-class if not higher. It took about a second for them to respond that #1, they didn't consider themselves poor as they had the basic necessities and #2, both were convinced that luxuries in their lives would ultimately corrupt them.

They have no TV, no netflix, no Super-Target, no shopping malls, no iphones - they have each other, and through their relationships with others and a very simple lifestyle, they are happy!

Who's poor? Perhaps the wealthy are.

Why do we think it's unfair that they have and we have not? I think it's because we're covetous and jealous people - and we want to get even. I truly believe that it might be as simple as that.

Why would 99.9% of the American population gladly receive the proceeds to the lottery, when we all know dang well that the lives of a majority of the winners are all but destroyed by the new-found wealth?

How much is enough? Good question. If everyone had enough, and there were still the very wealthy out there, we would continue to despise them and cry "fowl" and cry "not fair" - why? You know why. I know why.

The definition of "poor" in this country is dependent on the ratio between the have's and the have-not's. If every family and individual in this country had more than enough, yet there were still a group of "fat cats" up there, we still would not be satisfied.

If the playing field were government controlled and totally level, and there were no rich and no poor - where would the motivation be? No motivation to be the hands and feet of Christ for the poor, and no motivation to acquire wealth. Boring!

Brian said...


There's a lot in your comment. Where I'm contradictory with other things I've said, I'd appreciate you letting me know. I'm human. So I reserve the right to not be perfectly consistent though.

Just so we're clear, I'm not into wealth redistribution for wealth redistribution's sake. I'm not saying we all have to have the same thing or make the same income. That would be boring and counterproductive. Socialism, pure socialism, simply doesn't work. I thought I had said that here. I've said it so many times other places.

You are absolutely right about poor and rich being relative. I remember as a kid people saying I was "rich". We were middle class. But, it's all relative. And people almost always compare themselves to the people just above them.

I think you miss my point when I talk about a level playing field. It doesn't mean that everyone has the same income or the same net worth. It means everyone has the same opportunity. Of course, there are going to be individual differences in ability, in starting points, etc. But, when it comes to classes or groups of people, everyone should have the same shot at the American dream. Instead of an aristocracy, the American ideal is a meritocracy.


Tones said...

Understood -
Brian, you talk about equal opportunity here - do you have examples of Americans that don't have an opportunity to succeed?

Honestly, don't we already have this? Isn't it up to every American to go ahead and pursue it?

Brian said...

Wow. Where to begin, Tony?

In all honesty, this is a conversation we'd have to have face-to-face. If you think America is a land of equal opportunity for all, I'm afraid that's not something we can hammer out in this format.


Tones said...

Understood. I'm probably a bit naive on the topic based on my demographics, the way I was raised etc. It just seems like for each example of inequal opportunity, there are stories of people rising above the hurdles and achieving big things. Obama is a great example of this. The success stories of these brave people are awesome!

Also, there are those who blame the lack of equal opportunity on their condition (I know that I did when I dropped out of school in my younger years...)

Brian said...

Bingo! Tony. You hit the nail on the head. Did you catch what you said? "...there are stories of people rising above the hurdles and achieving big things."

Great analogy. Some of us have higher hurdles to jump over than others. Decades and generations of poverty. Dysfunctional social systems that people are raised in. Systemic racism when it comes to getting, jobs, loans, housing, etc. Lack of quality education. Lack of quality health care. Lack of quality day care. Disproportional amount of money spent on things like oh, I don't know... taxes...

Yes, theoretically anyone can overcome these hurdles. But, should the hurdles be the same for every class of people? Certainly, we can't set everybody up with completely equal circumstances. But, we can work on eliminating the broad systemic gaps. We can provide "ladders" up to people to give them the opportunity to climb.

I'm not a socialist in the sense that I think everyone deserves a "good" life whether they work or not. But, I do believe that America is a land of meritocracy rather than aristocracy and the land of opportunity. I want to see as much opportunity as possible spread to as many people as possible. Whether they take advantage of the opportunity or not is up to them.


Tones said...

Bingo back to you - "Whether they take advantage of the opportunity or not is up to them." This is my point - there are huge opportunities out there! And so many people don't take advantage of them. This probably isn't true across the country, but it certainly is in Minnesota. Wealth redistribution will not eliminate the systemic gap (and certainly a check from the government will only prolong and widen the gap.

Brian said...


1.) We "redistribute" wealth all the time in America. It's called taxes. It's been a part of our system since the beginning. I pay for things I don't use all the time. So, do you. Obama's tax code is not new. It's not socialistic and it's not a "redistribution of wealth" any more than several thousand other things our tax dollars go to.

2.) I've never claimed that simply writing a person a check was the answer or anything remotely like that. The jumping off point for this whole conversation was really the tax code. That's why I decided to repost this article I wrote a couple of years ago. But, just for the record, I do favor taking care of those who cannot provide for themselves. Those who can work should be required to work. Those who do have the skills should be given the opportunity to be trained. But, those who are in need should be provided for. I believe this is simply the humane thing to do.

It seems whenever I have this conversation with my more "conservative" friends we get into the whole merits of welfare and how it's really a burden for poor people because it keeps them poor. I agree that welfare alone is NOT the answer. Completely and totally. But, neither is leaving people to starve and children to suffer. Welfare needs to be reformed. But, abandoning people is not the "fix" for a broken system.

Tones said...

Good thoughts - we agree more that we realize perhaps ('cept I still have a gut feel that what Obama says, and what he really believes are not consistent, and that if he had his way, we would deploy a massive socialist experiment:-)

These posts have been great Brian - I've learned a bunch. Thanks!

Brian said...

Get the book, Tony. The Audacity of Hope. Unless you think Obama lied 2-3 years ago when he wrote the book, it's a great summary of his philosophy on government. Where the idea came from that he wants to conduct some massive socialistic experiement, I don't know.

If you get the book, I'd be more than happy to have a discussion of it with you.

I agree with you on this. And, Obama has made no secret of it. He's said it time and time again. "We are our brothers' keepers, we are our sisters' keepers." If someone finds that socialist, so be it. But, I would argue that it's an American value and has been since day one in this country. Obama believes that we are all in this together and that we should strive to raise the level for everybody. Not just the rich. Not just the privileged. He believes in building "ladders" for those who have been left behind. A man with no bootstraps cannot pull himself up by his bootstraps.