Monday, September 22, 2008

Distributing the World’s Wealth Equally

by Lindsey Thelen

Think about the house that you live in, the neighbors that surround you and the town where you come from. More importantly, think about the car, clothing, and material things that you possess. Living an absolutely affluent life, as most of us do, is something that we take for granted. Now put yourself in the shoes of a child at the age of 5 in Zambia. There is no roof over your head, no shoes on your feet, and no food on the table to eat. You live every day wondering how much longer you will survive in this situation. This example may represent an extreme situation in Zambia, but forces one to think about how many people are living in poverty throughout the world.

Poor people often lack adequate food and shelter and education and health, which keeps them from leading the kind of life that everyone values. They are extremely vulnerable to illness, to economic displacement, and are treated negatively by institutions in society. Of the world’s 6 billion people, 2.8 billion live on less than $2 a day, and 1.2 billion live on less than $1 a day. In rich countries, fewer than 5 percent of all children under 5 are malnourished, in poor countries as many as 50 percent are (Attacking poverty 3). This impoverishment continues to exist even though human conditions have improved more in the past century than ever before. Global wealth and technically advanced capabilities may be at their highest levels yet, but the distribution of these gains is tremendously unequal. The increasing rates of poverty throughout many countries in the world and the imbalance of wealth leads me to believe that the rich have a moral obligation to help those who are less fortunate. According to statistics comparing the rich and poor, the world’s seven richest men could wipe out poverty (Rich vs. Poor). Their combined wealth would be more than enough to provide the basic needs of the poorest quarter of the world’s population. The idea that affluent individuals could give more to the poor “without thereby sacrificing anything of comparable moral significance” (Singer 229) would provide resources to improve the lives of those who are impoverished and in desperate need of assistance.

The images of poverty in the United States that we are accustomed to seeing are homeless people sleeping on benches, beggars standing on the sidewalk pleading for money, or the hungry waiting in line at soup kitchens to be given a minimal amount of food. These situations can be defined as relative poverty, which is a lack of resources needed to meet anything beyond basic human needs. Living even in relative poverty often means not having sufficient food, clothing, shelter, or medical care to live a healthy life. These problems are present in society everyday and we tend to think only about the poor people in our own country. Relative poverty is a serious issue that affects millions of innocent men, women and children throughout the world. Lacking essential requirements to lead an affluent life puts the poor at a disadvantage in relation to rich populations. If the poor are not given wealth to help them out of poverty, they are not being given a fair chance to rise or emerge out of the depths of impoverishment. Many individuals are quick to argue that we need to take care of our own people before we help the poor in other countries. Our society is the wealthiest nation in the world and can hardly be viewed as poor, therefore, I do not see how poverty can be resolved if we do not look past out own country’s well-being. What about those countries who are living in absolute poverty, where every day is a struggle to survive? As Robert McNamara defines it, absolute poverty can be summarized as, “a condition of life so characterized by malnutrition, illiteracy, disease, squalid surroundings, high infant mortality and low life expectance as to be beneath any reasonable definition of human decency” (Singer 219). For the 1.2 billion people who are living in absolute poverty, where it is barely possible to meet the minimal biological needs to function, being poor may well be the “principle cause of human misery today” (Singer 220).

I believe that the main factor that contributes to poverty is distribution. The world produces enough food to feed everybody, but few of the resources are shared evenly throughout the globe. Periphery countries use a fraction of the food that wealthy nations such as the US and European countries use. Americans use most of the grain that is produced to feed our animals, while people in underdeveloped countries starve due to lack of food for themselves. If we as Americans are supplying grain to our animals, why can’t we spare some for people living in poverty throughout the world? Not only do Americans consume more grain than needed, but also we have one thing that many countries lack: the money to buy sufficient food. Since we are able and willing to pay for the supplies that are needed, farmers will obviously sell their goods for a profit. Poor families and countries do not always have enough money left over to buy their food, and therefore do without it. We need to find a more efficient way to distribute the food in the world in order to help stop poverty. Another area concerning distribution is lack of education in underdeveloped countries. Places with low levels of economic development face environmental degradation and unsanitary conditions. People who are less educated are more apt to practice violence, crime, and drug behaviors, which continue to flow from one generation to the next. Poverty causes an unpleasant cycle that will repeat itself until something is done to stop the problem. A solution is needed to stop poverty altogether, but at the current rate we are unlikely to see a resolution implemented in the near future.

According to the Australian philosopher Peter Singer, there is a strong obligation to assist people. He states, “if it is in our power to prevent something very bad from happening, without thereby sacrificing anything of comparable moral significance, we ought to do it” (Singer 229). He uses the example of a child falling into a pond to elaborate on his proposition. If a person were to witness a small child falling into a pond, there would be no hesitation that they would be morally obligated to jump into the water to save the drowning child. Singer uses this proposition as a basis for his theory on assisting the poor. He has a clear belief that, “Each one of us with wealth surplus to his or her essential needs should be giving most of it to help people suffering from poverty so dire as to be life-threatening” (Singer Solution 7). He believes that if every person would make a sacrifice, resources would be readily available to help save the lives of dying children or those in need. Singer says, “the formula is simple: whatever money you’re spending on luxuries, not necessities, should be given away” (Singer Solution 7).

Singer feels that there needs to be a compromise between giving up all one’s wealth to the poor and not giving anything at all. His proposition calls for 10 percent annual income to be given up to aid the poor. Setting an annual income percent in my opinion is an unrealistic expectation. I do believe that Americans should contribute to poverty efforts, but I do not think that an amount should be set. If every U.S. citizen gave 10 percent, I think about the lower class and what income they would be giving up. They have much less money to spend on necessities and little income is left over after their essential purchases. I feel that the middle class could afford to give up 10 percent, and the richest could afford much more, but I think that it is too much to ask of the lower income families.

If a graduated wealth and resource distribution system were implemented, the effects on those living in relative and absolute poverty would be tremendous. The relatively poor would be provided with money to help buy clothing, medical care, and shelter. These essential elements are important to lead a healthy life and would improve living conditions. The absolute poor however would benefit the most by using a graduated system of distribution. If the wealth were distributed to them, they would be able to improve their unsanitary conditions, treat diseases, and extend their life expectancy. Countless lives would be saved and improved if people would do their part in giving up some of their wealth. As you can see, people who are living in relative or absolute poverty desperately need money and food to be equally distributed in order to survive and prosper. Americans should recognize the distribution problem and be forced to give up a portion of their wealth based on a percentage of their income.

Peter Singer not only offers an amount that Americans should be obligated to provide to the poor, but he brings forth the morality issues that deal with helping others. He states, “If we don’t do it, then we should at least know that we are failing to live a morally decent life-not because it is good to wallow in guilt but because knowing where we should be going is the first step toward heading in that direction” (Singer Solution 7). This argument appears to be very reasonable and uncontroversial to me. According to Singer’s belief, each individual should decide what is morally significant if their life. If not buying a pair of jeans would save a child from starving, then the right thing to do is not buy the jeans. But not all individuals think that this comparison is significant.

It is difficult for some people to give away wealth because sometimes they are not concerned with helping those in distant lands. Most people, especially parents are concerned with the welfare of their own families and it is hard to blame them for wanting the best for loved ones. However, having nice clothing, a warm house to live in, and a meal to eat every night are things that we often take for granted. People need to realize how much they could do without and still at the same time live a prosperous life. Trying to solve the poverty problem in the United States would be of little significance because benefits to our society would have a smaller impact compared to the benefits that would result in regions of high poverty.

So the question arises, if the wealthy do help the poor what can be done to reduce the poverty numbers in the world? I think there are other alternatives than just donating money to poor nations. Very often, the poor do not have access to sufficient medical care and modern sanitation, which puts them at a great health risk. By implementing proper sanitation and medical care, death rates would decline considerably and the health of many would improve. Although at first this may not seem to be the solution, I think that it is a step towards stopping the cycle of poverty. If improving health care and sanitation promotes health, I believe that the standard of living would rise and gradually lesson the rates of poverty in many undeveloped countries.

It is hard to formulate one solution that would help to end poverty or to say what we, as individuals should do to give to the poor. Singer supports the idea to give 10 percent of wealth to the poor and feels that people are morally required to give up some their wealth. I do not feel that there is a set amount of income that should be given to the poor. Taking 10 percent of annual income could have negative effects on those who are not considered wealthy, and often times, the rich could afford to give much more. I believe that the graduated taxation and distribution system would be the best solution to help the poverty problem. I also agree that people are morally required to help others. Donating money to be used for medical supplies, education, and improving sanitation conditions would better the life of the poor. If people would be willing to make small contributions to the poor, poverty rates could possibly begin to decline altogether. If the extremes of relative wealth and poverty are diminished I believe it would lead to a world where being absolutely poor no longer exits.

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