Dr. Sylvain Ehrenfeld, International Humanist and Ethical Union, and the National Ethical Service of the American Ethical Union representative to the United Nations, and Temma Ehrenfeld, a freelance writer based in New York City.
"An imbalance between rich and poor is the oldest and most fatal ailment of all republics." -- Plutarch, biographer
This is true for the whole world as well. Ten years ago, world leaders pledged to achieve universal primary education and to reduce poverty, hunger, and child and maternal mortality--all by 2015. This bold, moral pledge by the world community is one of the most inspiring endeavors of current times. Media coverage of such a major ethical project has been minimal .
The Goals concentrate on global averages, which hide the huge differences between countries. For example, in Nigeria in 2008, 77% of the population lived on less than $1 U.S. per day, a sharp rise from 49% in 1990. However in Ethiopia, the same figure dropped from 60% to 16%, according to a recent study by the Overseas Development Institute, a U.K. research group.
There are also huge differences within countries. A national average can hide the suffering of groups that are discriminated against in anti-poverty programs. Progress depends on narrowing inequality, sending resources into slums and remote rural areas and creating jobs for the poor. Ethiopia focused its efforts on its poorest rural population, and as a result, inequality is less prevalent in Ethiopia than in Nigeria.
Organizations within the United Nations have acknowledged the importance of inequality. The Geneva-based United Nations Research Institute for Social Development has argued that the U.N. is ignoring the critical role of jobs and income inequality in its strategy to fight world poverty and hunger. Many leaders have resisted dealing with the \'hot potato\' of inequality, and would rather deal with averages. It is often a matter of politics and fair government.
A recent report by UNICEF documents that U.S. $1M spent on young children in the most remote disadvantaged areas, rather than on people who are easier to reach (the current strategy), would save 60% more lives. UNICEF advocates training more local community health workers in remote villages, urging the poor to seek care, and covering transportation costs to hospitals. One suggestion is to build houses near urban hospitals where rural women can stay before delivering their babies.
The latest United States census tells an important story about inequality here. Most of the wealth created since the 1970s went to the richest Americans. The median income (adjusted for inflation ) has scarcely improved since 1970. Wages have stagnated and inequality has risen dramatically. In the 1970s, the top 1% of earners made 8% of all income. In the late 1990s the top 1% earned 15% of all income; and, by 2007 the richest 1% of the population was taking in more than 23% of all income.
The causes for this sharp increase in income inequality are: the decline in unions, technological changes, and the increase in the United States trade deficit.
President Johnson's War on Poverty proved that social policy directed at the poor can work. The poverty rate fell dramatically in ten years. We also know that the inequality in the United States today is no longer sustainable. As Robert Reich, the former Labor secretary in the Clinton Administration concludes, consumers can't or won't buy enough to keep turning the economy around. There are limits to how much people can borrow and how many more hours they can work. The recession may be officially over, but as long as unemployment is high, and inequality sky-high, the economic future for most Americans is in danger.