Thursday, May 21, 2009

Economics , Poverty and Compassion

Sitting around the fire-pit the other night we were talking about the topic that consumes most of our lives now , the state of the economy. After sharing some of my recent discoveries from a book I recently read, Ginny said smugly “I am surprised that I haven’t read this in your Blog.” I thanked her for the wonderful idea. You see we were talking about how she had to take a “furlough day” as part of a budget cutting effort and while getting our car serviced the service manager spoke about how each of his employees had to take a cut in pay or lose their job. We have neighbors who have been laid off from work, homes in the area in foreclosure, the college where I work is becoming more prudent in their budget management and we speculated why a friend’s parent would return to work after retiring just a short time ago. …And on and on and on.

Quite frankly what really upsets me are the infomercials on how to make money off your neighbor’s misfortunes, i.e. their mortgage foreclosures. Vultures!!! Then there are the commercials with big bosomed ladies in tight low cut and short skirts touting how “anyone can benefit” from get rich quick schemes in a tough economy. I wondered if these women were financially independent and did this to help mankind. Have you seen the recent investment house commercials? One asks the question about retirement and if we thought the road to retirement “was going to be an easy ride” and another that suggests that we need trust investment advisors who have experience. OK, come on now. Most of us were doing our part by working hard and saving money for the future and our trusted financial advisors and money managers led us down the path to this dark hole in the economy. In fact they were clueless about what was going on . Maybe my Uncle Frank was right….”if I put my money under a mattress (and he did) I know where it is and how to get it!”

A cartoon in the newpaper the other day illustrated a manager who had to decide between the advice on financial strategy from a MBA graduate or take the advice from a witch .The manager asks both characters something like “OK, who got us in all this financial trouble in the first place? Was it the witches? “

But I digress... and now back to this book I just read, “The Life you can Save: Acting now to end World Poverty “ by Peter Singer, a Bioethics professor at Princeton University. The book is part informational with depressing statistics about world poverty, part economics lesson about the range of attitudes from self-indulgence and paying attention to the common good, and it has recommendations for definitive action on a small and global scale to make poverty history.

Many of us worry about providing food and shelter and a good quality of life for our families. In this book by Singer there are numerous facts that would motivate many to take to the hills (or at least to a monastery) or become activists.As with many situations in our experience even the notion of "poverty" is relative. In the United States for example , 97% of those classified as poor own a color tv, 75% own a car, three quarters have air conditioning, three quarters had DVD or VCR players and all have access to (some) health care.Still more than 22,000 people die each year in the US because they do not have health insurance. But then throughout the world there are 1.4 billion people who live in extreme poverty .The World Bank defines the poverty line as earning or having access to $1.25 per day (This type of poverty is tied to having basic needs for survival.) UNICEF research indicates that 10 million children a year die from “avoidable, poverty-related causes” but we must also add another 8 million to this figure to include the deaths of older children and adults.

Some of the objections to helping the poor on a global basis include:

• They (the poor) should work for what they need or want
• We are not responsible for rescuing the poor
• America is generous enough and Americans do more than their fair share of helping others
• Giving help and money breeds dependency
• Cash is the seed of capitalism and giving it away reduces future growth
• The problems are too big to consider that we can make an impact.

Singer provides some interesting and substantive counter arguments to these objections.

I was also pleased to learn that there are organizations such as the “50% League” where those who have a lot of money or even a little more than the average citizen who give away a good portion of their capital to help others in need. See There are stories in Singer’s text that go beyond the giving of generous wealthy people such as Microsoft's founder Bill Gates and his Foundation. There is wonderful vignette of a couple who decides to live on $38,000/yr and give the difference in their earnings to charitable causes, and a little story of the family that donates 75% of their capital to those in need and much more. Singer also mentions businessman Tom White who provided tens of millions of dollars to Dr. Paul Farmer’s “Partners in Health” organization ( Farmer who was the subject of the best selling book I also read recently, “Mountains Beyond Mountains”( my daughter Leigh gave me this book for Christmas) Farmer creates a non for profit organization to provide medical help for the poor in Haiti and Peru (before he became a doctor.)

I know there are many around the world who provide outstanding unselfish service to help the poor and less fortunate. I didn’t mean to suggest earlier that the poor in the United States do not experience difficult or traumatic circumstances. It is sad to see anyone in serious need. Reading Singer's book helped me recall an old friend I have lost touch with over the years, Karen Olson, who has been active in helping those who cannot help themselves. I first met Karen when I worked for Herb and Les. My friend Herb was providing some pro-bono consulting to help Karen with creating a new not for profit enterprise and service. In 1982 Karen was a marketing executive for a Fortune 100 company and one day on the way to work she gave her lunch sandwich to a homeless woman she met living on the streets of New York City. Moved by this experience and realizing there were significant numbers of homeless families, Karen decided to take some action.Within a few short years Karen left her job and organized what is now called “Family Promise” that has over 125,000 volunteers in 40 states who have served over 31,000 homeless families. See

There’s more to this story and Ginny said that this entry is a little long already. So maybe I will continue this story about Karen and others another time. It is with a slight relief and deep sense of gratitude that when I think about all the pain experienced by so many in the world today due to poverty that there are those who sacrifice so much to give others a second ….and even a first chance at life.

* Some books on the subject and related matters:

The Life you can Save – Peter Singer

Mountains Beyond Mountains - Tracy Kidder

Radical Compassion: Finding Christ the Heart of the Poor – Gary Smith SJ

The Blue Sweater: Bridging the Gap Between Rich and Poor in an Interconnected World
- Jacqueline Novogratz


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