By Mike Mulvihill
Big yawn, the BP Gulf oil well was permanently capped this week to little fanfare. Kind of anticlimactic, I know. So since the biggest event in energy the past week was a non-event, I’m departing from my blog’s usual energy focus to talk about another, much more alarming story that surfaced last Friday and received amazingly little attention.
In case you missed it, the U.S. Census Bureau announced last Friday that the number of Americans living in poverty has risen sharply to 14.3 percent from 13.2 percent in 2008—the highest percent since 1994. Some 43.6 million Americans were living below the official poverty threshold. To add a little perspective, the sheer number of people in poverty is the greatest since we started recording this information in 1959. In a country that is one of the 10 richest nations in the world.
If things are worse here, then consider the following worldwide observations from globalissues.org :
- Almost half the world — over 3 billion people — live on less than $2.50 a day.
- The GDP (Gross Domestic Product) of the 41 Heavily Indebted Poor Countries (567 million people) is less than the wealth of the world’s 7 richest people combined.
- Nearly a billion people entered the 21st century unable to read a book or sign their names.
- Less than one per cent of what the world spent every year on weapons was needed to put every child into school by the year 2000 and yet it didn’t happen.
- 1 billion children live in poverty (1 in 2 children in the world). 640 million live without adequate shelter, 400 million have no access to safe water, 270 million have no access to health services. 10.6 million died in 2003 before they reached the age of 5 (or roughly 29,000 children per day).
Really depressing stuff, I know, but hang with me just a little longer. Aside from the alleviation of human suffering, we should be concerned with poverty from a purely capitalist, business standpoint. Regardless of your own station in life, poverty is a root cause to social unrest and political instability. Poverty is associated with increased crime, incarceration and health risks, especially from chronic illnesses such as diabetes, at great cost to society. Some have even correlated (and it has been argued the correlation is incorrect) that poverty breeds terrorism. Regardless, history has consistently shown that our current growing gap between the richest “haves” and the poorest “have nots” does not bode well for business interests or family concerns. Such gaps create economic turmoil, unpredictable markets and make it difficult for businesses to “protect the franchise” against wholesale societal upheaval. Widening gaps claw away at the fabric of society until a breaking point occurs at which time the “have nots” take matters into their own hands.
Poverty is clearly one of the most significant issues affecting society today. It is more than mere coincidence that on Monday 140 world leaders gathered at the U.N. for a three-day summit on global anti-poverty plans encompassed in goals known as the Millennium Development Goals. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon opened the summit Monday with a plea to the assembled presidents, prime ministers and kings to use their power to meet U.N. goals to help the world’s poorest by 2015.
Ten years ago many of these same world leaders set the most ambitious goals ever to tackle global poverty, disease, ignorance and inequality. Now they are gathered again to spur action to meet the deadline — which the U.N. says will be difficult, if not impossible, in some cases.
Ten years ago, the world vowed to reduce extreme poverty by half, ensure that every child has a primary school education, halt and reverse the HIV/AIDS pandemic, reduce maternal mortality by three-quarters and child mortality by two-thirds. Goals additionally called for cutting by half the number of people without access to clean water and basic sanitation — all by 2015. They also set goals to promote equality for women, protect the environment, increase development aid, and open the global trading and financial system.
And if you’ll remember, the U.S. announced its own war on poverty back in 1964. President Lyndon B. Johnson introduced the term – and legislation to back it up – during his State of the Union address on January 8, 1964. The legislation, a cornerstone of what was referred to as the “Great Society,” was proposed in response to a national poverty rate of around 19 percent. The speech led Congress to pass the Economic Opportunity Act, which established the Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO) to administer the local application of federal funds targeted against poverty.
|However, the war on poverty waned after the 1960s. Deregulation, growing criticism of the welfare state, and an ideological shift to reducing federal aid to impoverished people in the 1980s and 1990s culminated in the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act of 1996, which, Bill Clinton claimed, “end[ed] welfare as we know it.” Nonetheless, the legacy of the War on Poverty remains in the continued existence of such federal programs as Head Start, Volunteers in Service to America, and Job Corps.|
Forty-six years after LBJ declared war on poverty, we have more people classified as living in poverty than ever before. Ten years after the UN declared war on global poverty, the world’s progress is no better. As a nation and as a global community, we need to do better, much better. As businesses, we must become part of the solution. As members of our communities, local and global, we must become part of the solution. Until we do, it is only a matter of time before the middle class essentially disappears leaving only those who have things and those who are left with little choice but to take the things they need by whatever means necessary. Thomas Jefferson said, “A little rebellion now and then is a good thing.” I’m not so sure I feel the same about revolutions.