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by Jaap den Haan
Monday, Mar. 12, 2007 at 11:47 PM
How much should the wealthy give to the poor?
In his New York Times article ‘What Should a Billionaire Give – and What Should You?’, author and Princeton University professor Peter Singer calculates how much money the wealthiest 10 per cent of Americans earn, and concludes that a fraction of this income could be used not only to reduce, but to virtually eliminate global poverty.
Beginning with the commonly held belief that all human lives are of equal value, regardless of nationality, gender and place of residence, Singer points out that with 1 billion people living in unprecedented luxury while another 1 billion struggle to survive on less than per day, humanity is far from enacting this truth. He cites UNICEF’s statistics that “more than 10 million children die every year – about 30,000 per day – from avoidable, poverty-related causes”.
Singer argues that the wealthy have a moral obligation to give to the poor, and refers to the work of Thomas Pogge, a philosopher at Columbia University, who argues that at least some of the affluence of the world’s wealthy comes at the expense of the poor. Examples include not only the trade barriers the developed world uses against imported goods from the developing world, but also corporations’ “willingness to buy natural resources from any government, no matter how it has come to power. This provides a huge financial incentive for groups to try to overthrow the existing government.” This access to raw materials forms the basis of industrial nations’ prosperity, but “is a disaster for resource-rich developing countries, turning the wealth that should benefit them into a curse that leads to a cycle of coups, civil wars and corruption and is of little benefit to the people as a whole”.
In Singer’s opinion, current levels of government aid are not nearly adequate to solve the problem of global poverty, and private philanthropy is key. “The rich, then, should give,” Singer writes. “But how much should they give?” Using as a guide the Millennium Development Goals – costed at 1 billion in 2006, rising to 9 billion by 2015 – and taking into account existing promises of development aid, he calculated the additional amount needed each year to meet the goals.
After analyzing the incomes of the wealthiest 10 per cent of Americans, he proposed a sliding scale, where the super-rich, with earnings greater than .1 million per year, would give a higher percentage (25-33 per cent) of their income than the merely rich or comfortable, who earn between ,000-.1 million and would give between 10-20 per cent of their income.
Singer’s conclusion is compelling: “…the remarkable thing about these calculations is that a scale of donations that is unlikely to impose significant hardship on anyone yields a total of 4 billion – from just 10 per cent of American families.”
The wealthy in other nations should also contribute to alleviating global poverty, Singer says. If the US contributed 50 per cent of total global donations, “the scheme I have suggested worldwide would provide 8 billion annually for development aid. That’s more than six times what the task force chaired by Sachs estimated would be required for 2006 in order to be on track to meet the Millennium Development Goals, and more than 16 times the shortfall between that sum and existing official development aid commitments”.
“It was not until, in preparing this article, I calculated how much America’s top 10 per cent of income earners actually make, that I fully understood how easy it would be for the world’s rich to eliminate, or virtually eliminate, global poverty,” Singer concludes. “…. Measured against our capacity, the Millennium Development Goals are indecently, shockingly modest. If we fail to achieve them – as on present indications we well might – we have no excuses. The target we should be setting for ourselves is not halving the proportion of people living in extreme poverty, and without enough to eat, but ensuring that no one, or virtually no one, needs to live in such degrading conditions. That is a worthy goal, and it is well within our reach.” (Source: The New York Times, USA)
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