The chaos that has surrounded the world of finance lately has most of us thinking about our own situations, comfortable or precarious as they may be. Also, the outrageous disparity between the extraordinarily wealthy and, oh, the entire rest of humanity has been getting more press lately than it has in the past. Or perhaps in the past, outrageous wealth was seen strictly as an admirable goal for which to strive. Maybe not so much anymore. Of course, we want certain creature comforts and some sense of security as we grow older, but the concept that extreme wealth can be "too much" is no longer exclusive to those who take religious vows of poverty.
Is there an ethical limit to wealth? It's a viable topic for debate, especially if wealth is concentrated in the hands of a few while the majority of the world's population suffers from a dire lack of food, potable water and decent medical care.
The U.S. is a wealthy country, with a per capita GDP of $46,000. But not everybody is flush with cash. In 2004, twelve percent of our population lived below the poverty line. And how does that translate to annual income? In 2007, the poverty threshold for a single person under 65 was $10,787; the threshold for a family group of four, including two children, was $21,027.
Can you imagine supporting a family on $21,027 a year? Can you imagine squeaking by on your own with about nine hundred dollars in your pocket each month? Less than two hundred fifty each week? That would mean no health insurance, so you'd be forced to rely on free clinics and hope to arrange free prescription drugs. You'd have no car because insurance and gas costs are too high, so public transportation, walking or maybe using a bicycle would be your only ways to get around.
What about a place to live? The average rent back in 2005 in New York was $2400 per month; in San Francisco, it was $1573; and in Los Angeles it was $1421. You could find relatively cheap rent in Oklahoma City, Birmingham, Memphis and other smaller cities and towns, but even at $600-$700 per month, that would leave you only a few hundred dollars for utilities and a phone.
Did you need some clothes to wear, too? Charity and thrift stores would be your only options, unless you found some generous friends. And you wanted to eat? You'd have to be one incredibly brilliant shopper to come up with enough food and it's unlikely that your diet would be nutritionally balanced.
Sounds rough, doesn't it? But, if you worked for minimum wage ($6.55 per hour in 2008), you'd gross $13,624 per year, putting you above the poverty line. You can read about just how difficult it would be trying to scrape by on minimum wage in Barbara Ehrenreich's Nickle and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America. The author voluntarily tried the task, at one point nearly ending up in a homeless shelter.
Ms. Ehrenreich knew she'd be able to return to her comfortable life after her adventure in journalism was complete. But how demoralizing it must be, on top of the physical demands and the fear of losing a job or even taking an unpaid sick day (most minimum wage jobs offer no benefits), to live on the edge, knowing that, without a lot of luck and super-human determination, there's likely nothing but more of the same in your future. And that's here in the land of opportunity.
My favorite book that depicts the relative wealth of nations is Material World: A Global Family Portrait by Peter Menzel. Here's the description from the Amazon.com review:
"In honor of the United Nations-sponsored International Year of the Family in 1994, award-winning photojournalist Peter Menzel brought together 16 of the world's leading photographers to create a visual portrait of life in 30 nations. Material World tackles its wide subject by zooming in, allowing one household to represent an entire nation. Photographers spent one week living with a 'statistically average' family in each country, learning about their work, their attitudes toward their possessions, and their hopes for the future. Then a 'big picture' shot of the family was taken outside the dwelling, surrounded by all their (many or few) material goods."
Not only is this book visually riveting, it offers unique insight into the lives of ordinary families in other cultures by sharing not only a glimpse of their daily experiences, but also what possessions they live with and find valuable. It provides necessary perspective for all of us.
It's easy to feel overwhelmed by the issue of poverty, but paralysis doesn't help the situation. Instead, it's more useful to take action, no matter how small that action may be. One possibility you might consider is donating to:
Kiva is a micro-loan organization that allows individuals to donate as little as $25 to an entrepreneur who needs just a little boost to begin a business. For example, one of the featured entrepreneurs today is Mr. Net Sopheak's Group. Mr. Sopheak and his wife live in Cambodia. They are requesting a loan of $350 to buy two pigs to start a pig breeding business. The repayment term of their loan will be ten months. Only $25 is still required to meet their goal. You could help this family, or many other families, improve their living conditions by making a donation.
Whatever your situation, I urge you to act with a donation of money, useful goods that are no longer useful to you, or, if you're struggling right now and feel that you haven't a spare penny, consider donating your time.
If you're reading this blog, you're economically better off than so many people who share our planet. Poverty is a tragedy. But it also would be very sad for those of us who are more fortunate to experience a poverty of spirit. Let's nourish our spirits by acting for the benefit of others today, Blog Action Day.
© 2008 Cynthia Friedlob