October 12, 2010

You Are Really, Really Rich

Money - Savings by 401(K) 2013, on Flickr
A politician who suggested a healthcare plan that would apply only to the richest 10% of people would be laughed out of office on election day. It would be absurd to look after only those who already have everything. A welfare plan which took money from the rich and gave all of it to the upper-middle class, without giving anything to the poor, would be ridiculous. And yet, that is exactly the system that we have.

Every year, we give the Earned Income Credit to millions of poor Americans. In 2004, $36 billion were transferred from the wealthy to the poor through this system. The maximum credit is earned by those who make $16,420 or less. Therefore, the tax system considers these people poor. Politicians consider these people poor enough that it was worth proposing a tax on richer Americans which would then be used to give money to this group; a proposal which was accepted.

When we take a step back and look at the American "poor" from a global perspective, our priorities seem skewed, to say the least. According to the Global Rich List, someone making $16,420/year is in the top 12% of income earners in the world. Someone at the US poverty line ($10,830) is still in the top 13%. We are taking money from the top 5%, and because we feel so sorry for them, we are giving it to people who are still in the top 15%, and giving absolutely nothing to everyone else.

Sometimes when I am listening to stories on NPR about people who are losing their homes to foreclosure, or who go bankrupt due to medical bills, I start to get a little choked up. I feel sorry for those people. I want to do something to help them.

Then I remember that they aren't the people who really need my help. The difficult experiences that we have in America stink. It's terrible to lose your house. It's terrible to be forced to sell your heirlooms to make ends meet.

It's worse to have to choose which child gets to sleep under the mosquito netting, because you can't afford a $10 bed net for each of them. It's worse to wonder every day whether the water you are drinking will kill you. It's worse to not have enough money to send your children to school.

We have eradicated poverty in America. That is an incredible miracle that we have never really celebrated. People no longer starve to death here. They no longer die of mumps or measles or diarrhea or malaria. We should celebrate that incredible accomplishment. But while we are celebrating, we need to remember that we have brothers and sisters out there who still are starving, and who are still dying from diarrhea and malaria. It's time to move our focus from America to the rest of the world.

The great news is that because you are so (relatively) rich, it is easy to do a lot of good. By cancelling cable, or skipping your morning coffee, you can make a real and meaningful difference to many people who need help.

There are plenty of great ways to help out. I like Kiva and Room to Read, but there are many other ways to do something. But you should do something.

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