UNICEF estimates that a child under 15 dies every 5 seconds from extreme poverty. A large majority of these deaths are children under 5 years old and at least half are newborns. They die from diseases such as malaria and intestinal worms or because they don’t have access to clean water or have enough to eat. These deaths are entirely preventable.
For a few dollars, a mosquito net for a child’s bed could be purchased which is very effective at preventing malaria. Medication to treat those who already have malaria has a median cost of about $2.20. Intestinal worms can be treated for even less.
What Is Extreme Poverty?
The World Bank defines extreme poverty as those who live on less than $1.90 a day. Moderate poverty is less than $3.10 a day. To give this some perspective, half of Americans live on $82 or more a day (those making $30,000+ a year). What extreme poverty looks like is not having enough income to provide adequate food, water, shelter, clothing, sanitation, health care, or education.
UNICEF data show that 385 million children live under this extreme poverty marker. “Without urgent action, 56 million children under five will die from now until 2030 – half of them newborns,” said Laurence Chandy, UNICEF Director of Data, Research and Policy.
Are You Part Of The Global 1% for Income?
You probably have heard this statistic thrown around: 1% of people in the world hold 50% of the wealth. While I’m not trying to hash through the topic of income inequality, it is very enlightening to discover just how much income you need to make to be in the 1% (note: I focus on income rather than wealth for the rest of this post). I assumed that people like Jeff Bezos, Bill Gates, Warren Buffet and a few Russion oligarchs easily make enough. These super rich individuals are defintely included in the 1% but I was genuinely blown away to see who else this includes.
In terms of income, if you are living in the United States and you are Ariana Grande, Lady Gaga, LeBron James or a Kardashian, you are in the 1%. No big surprise. If you are a hotshot lawyer or an emergency room doctor, you are also in the global 1%. I guess that’s not a terrible surprise either. But guess what, if you are an accountant, a software programmer or a school teacher, you are probably also a 1%-er. Depending on where they live, there is a good chance that the manager of the local Applebees restraunt is also in the 1%. According to CARE International’s Global Rich List, only $32,400 a year gets you into the 1% richest by income club. Is this a shock? It was for me.
Everyone Wants To Help The Poor
Are you part of the 1%? There’s a good chance of it. As I mentioned earlier, about half of wage earners in the United States earn more than $30,000 according to the Social Security Administration. Most Americans wouldn’t consider 30k a year to be much so it’s unimaginable how much harder it is for families who live in extreme poverty.
The truth is, the United States alone has enough extra money laying around to stop extreme poverty. And most Americans I know are generous people. They want to help others. So why can’t we figure this out? Part of the problem is that human beings have deeply tribal instincts. We have the capability to do amazingly selfless things for those who are in our tribal circles but we are often very distrusting of those outside our groups. Our obligations to help our family, for example, come naturally to us. But the less we know someone and the further away they are to us, we feel a weaker obligation.
Why should you give to strangers? Do they have a right to have something that’s yours? What we know about extreme poverty probably comes from movies or occasional magazine advertisements for international charities. Suffering from poverty seems distant–almost another world away. It feels like a problem too big to make much of a difference. Most of us don’t know anyone living in extreme poverty and so it seems like helping is kind of like moral bonus points but there is no real reason to feel bad.
This gets to the question of this lesson. What exactly is our obligation towards extreme poverty? Here are two thought-experiments from contemporary philsophers Peter Singer and Garrett Hardin that will likely resonate with your kids.
Your New Shoes
Peter Singer tells a story about a drowning child that goes something like this.
You are walking down a path, perhaps through a park and you pass by a shallow pond. It’s not very deep and children occasionally play in it when the weather is warm. It’s early in the day and cool so you are surprised to see a child playing in the pond. You get closer and notice that the child is very young and is struggling to stay up on his feet. There appears to be no parents or anyone else around. You quickly realize that if you don’t enter the pond and help pull him out, he will probably drown.
Wading into the pond is easy and safe for an adult but you will ruin the new shoes you just bought. You really like these shoes and you spent a good amount of money on them. What should you do?
Storyboard The Argument
Have your kids storyboard the shoes and the pond analogy. They can do it anyway they want but one suggestion is to have 4 squares: 1) Walking with your new shoes; 2) Stopping at the pond where the child is drowning and nobody is around; 3) Jumping in to save the child; 4) Scenario where there are other people watching but doing nothing.
Who Fits In The Boat?
Garrett Hardin gives a different opinion concerning our obligation to extreme poverty. He explains his point of view through the lifeboat analogy.
Imagine 50 people are in a lifeboat which is floating on the ocean. The boat has a capacity for 10 more people but they would have to throw overboard some provisions to make room. There are 100 people in the water who are begging to be let aboard.
If all life is equally valuable, then you must let all 100 on board which will sink the boat and all 150 people will die. Maybe you let 10 people on board but how do you pick which 10? Hardin believes letting 100 people are board is equally wrong as allowing 10 on board.
His reasoning is that giving up the extra room to allow 10 people reduces the resources of the original 50 from making it to safety. Hardin says that the people in the water are already doomed because they don’t have a boat. They need a boat of their own to make it and helping a few of them doesn’t solve any problems and just prolongs their misery.
In Hardin’s analogy, he uses a boat to represent a nation and the people in the water are another nation. Those who are in the water are in extreme poverty and those in the boat are a country that has a safety net for their citizens–they have more than they need. Hardin believes that a nation should look after its own citizens and should never risk the well-being of their own people for those of another nation.
Draw The Argument
Have your kids draw the lifeboat analogy. They can depict the scene of people in the boat with space for a few more and people in the water. Additionally, they could also depict the scenario where all the people in the water boarded the boat and the result or maybe a middle solution allowing only some people to board.
So What Do We Do?
In the case of the child drowning in the pond, we can see the situation first-hand. We observe the child is in trouble, that the situation is urgent and that our actions can make a difference. We can’t see those in extreme poverty who might be a continent away. It’s hard to fully understand the situation. Even if we do, many people are worried about which charities can be trusted, if local corruption will interfere or if our donations are truley going to the right people. We also worry that our donation might just be a bandage rather than help bring structural or institutional changes that will build open and free economies for people to thrive.
Because of these types of uncertainties, many who wouldn’t hesitate to jump into the pond will hesitate to help relieve extreme poverty. The burden of getting these answers can cause us to avoid doing anything and keep our surplus resources that we might otherwise give.
As I went through this exercise with my 10 and 8 year old kids, we decided to research charitable organizations that we can support as a family. We are still trying to decide but one in particular that we found interesting is Kiva. Kiva crowdfunds capital for loans to be made to people who don’t have access to banks. In their own words: “students can pay for tuition, women can start businesses, farmers are able to invest in equipment and families can afford needed emergency care.” Others we might consider are The Life You Can Save (started by Peter Singer), Oxfam, Room To Read, Against Malaria Foundation.
I think it’s important to note that efforts to fight global poverty have had remarkable results in past decades. We can be heartened to know that this is not a lost cause. Fewer children are dying each year worldwide with deaths of children under five falling sharply from 12.6 million in 1990 to 5.4 million in 2017. But the questions remain. What is our moral obligation as individuals to help relieve the suffering of extreme poverty? How do we draw moral lines of who we help? Are we all in different boats? Or is there just one big boat that we as human beings are all in?