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)