why generation next should remember to care about poverty in america

“Ultimately, global and domestic poverty are interconnected, as are the solutions to these challenges.” – Center for American Progress

Global poverty is the scourge of our generation. At a time when wealth is dilating at a blistering pace, many of the world’s poor are doing just as badly as ever and their plight is arresting. The students of my generation—Generation Next—those who have come to age with the ease of the Internet and earned their college degrees in the new millennium—have become doughty champions of a fecund global anti-poverty campaign. They are a cadre of well-educated, clever, and entrepreneurial young adults showing deep commitment toward ending the debilitating indigence in the developing world. Generation Next is a group of promising consummate cosmopolitans, making strides in the moral dilemmas posed by their increasingly connected world; what philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah calls the challenges of cosmopolitanism.

But, as Appiah also points out, cosmopolitanism is not just a challenge. It is a mindset that proclaims that we have obligations to others outside of our close network of kin and clan and that we take seriously the value of individual human lives, not just the aggregate value of human life. Just as cosmopolitanism is a challenge for the moral individual, global poverty is a moral challenge for the cosmopolitan individual.

Concern for the global poor has not only become a waxing moral demand; it has become a mainstream cause. A recent issue of Vanity Fair, guest edited by Bono, asked the 2008 presidential candidates what they’d do for Africa. Celebrities are adopting AIDS orphans from Sub-Saharan Africa, lobbying for pro-poor policy change, trumpeting their indignity on the cover of popular magazines, and touting the feel-good product lines of fair trade coffee, sweat-free T-shirts, and (PRODUCT) RED iPods, all in which consumers can indulge with a sense of pride.

But Generation Next isn’t just a generation of moral consumers; it’s a generation in which devoting one’s career to the world’s toughest cases is widespread. Jobs and degrees in sustainable and international development are on the rise; recently the University of California at Berkeley approved a new minor for undergraduate students in global poverty and practice. Harvard and Columbia both have renowned graduate programs in sustainable development. A career in international development offers our generation the opportunity to rectify the injustice etched into many countries in Latin America, Africa, and Asia.

Generation Next has exhibited extraordinary compassion and commitment to vanquishing global poverty. But Gen Nexters ought to remember that poverty at home, although in many ways less severe, is just as much a moral obligation.

Jeffrey Sachs has forcefully argued that there is no extreme poverty in the United States. While 2.5 billion people in the developing world live on less than $2 per day and 970 million live on less than $1, Americans rarely know such extreme deprivation. Our poverty line for a single individual, at or below which are 37 million Americans, is right around $10,000 per annum, about 12 times that of she at the $2 per day threshold. Even the income of the two million Americans living below half of the poverty line is still in the stratosphere compared to most developing countries.

But income statistics can be, in some ways, misleading. As Amartya Sen shows, African American men, who make on average many times more than a man from China or Kerala, India, even after controlling for differences in costs of living, have a noticeably lower chance of surviving past the age of thirty-five. Similarly, an African American from Harlem has a much lower chance of living past the age of forty than a man from Bangladesh, one of the world’s poorest countries. Although this is not convincing evidence that poverty among certain demographics in America is as bad as in the poorest countries, it does illustrate the complexity of the poverty phenomenon and suggests that income statistics don’t paint a complete picture. Poverty in developing countries is atrocious, but poverty in America is still real. And the severity of international poverty does not free us from the need to address the troubling blight of poverty in urban, suburban, and rural America.

The American poor are citizens of our own country. To them we are bound by an explicit and implicit social contract that entails particular obligations. The strictest of utilitarians would, of course, disagree. She would argue that we have obligations to whomever has the greatest need. National boundaries, at least when it comes to the issue of poverty, are morally irrelevant. But this requires an extension of the traditional concept of a state.  As it stands, governments, by definition, and unlike individuals, are limited in scope by national boundaries. There may be a utilitarian case to be made that a state ought to offer more aid to developing countries but this in no way entails the dissolution of particular obligations to citizens. Part of what makes our country work well is the idea that we can both meet our most demanding obligations and that we give special attention to those with whom we are closest—fellow Americans.

But most of the champions of the campaign to end global poverty are not strict utilitarians; they prioritize ending global poverty, but don’t necessarily think that domestic poverty should be ignored by policymakers. For these Gen Nexters, as the global anti-poverty movement grows and the 2008 presidential election nears, they should not forget about poverty in America. Domestic poverty entails both a serious material lack—although our incomes are higher and welfare state larger—and inequality that can be psychologically debilitating to the poor.

Some scholars argue that what we look for in determining our well-being is not how well-off we actually are, but how well-off we are in comparison to others. When it comes to inequality, research by Thomas Pikkety and Emmaneul Saez has shown that the top one percent of the income distribution in America now takes in the largest share of the nation’s income—19.3 percent—since 1929. The top ten percent now earns more than 400 times, per person, that of the average individual in the bottom half. Such an unequal distribution of wealth would lead to a lower level of subjective well-being for the worse-off even if they were just as well off in absolute terms. And subjective well-being—happiness and psychological health, broadly conceived—matters.  Researchers have shown that there is a tight correlation between poverty and personality disorders and mental illness. Mothers on welfare in the United States are much more likely to be clinically depressed than mothers with higher incomes. These mothers have a harder time getting a job and will raise their children on welfare; these children will, in turn, be much more likely to experience depression. In order to make progress against poverty, it’s necessary to make progress against the psychological impediments associated with poverty and inequality that prevent individuals from moving upward.

Social mobility and equal opportunity are the cornerstones of our social fabric—the bedrock for the American Dream—and neediness inhibits both opportunity and mobility. Our current situation is like a cartoon in which a character fleeing a growling, slobbering mastiff tries his luck climbing a ladder to escape but is cursed by his inability to even reach the bottom rung. As a result, the character is time after time nipped by the dog, running across the screen, and too preoccupied with avoiding bites to worry at all about how to get onto the ladder.

But perhaps the 2008 presidential election will bring the ladder within reach.

The election will be one in which the plight of others matters enormously, both in itself and as a matter of national security. A February poll from the Catholic Campaign for Human Development shows that 62 percent of Americans believe that poverty here at home is a threat to security.

Poverty is indeed ravaging the world and our country, but it can be brought under control. Raising and expanding the Earned Income Tax Credit to include non-custodial fathers and single men, offering universal medical coverage, and offering high-quality universal pre-kindergarten and early childhood education are a few of the many sound policy proposals that scholars widely agree would make an impact on poverty.

But 2008 will ultimately be about more than just poverty. For Generation Next and the general population, the 2008 presidential election will turn on the interests of others, broadly conceived. How successfully a candidate stands up to worldwide poverty, the humanitarian crises in Darfur and Iraq, the disproportionate burden borne by the developing world of global warming, and other issues will be a strong measure of his or her success in the election and as a president. And so, no matter your vantage of the 2008 political landscape, the interests of others matter. Generation Next has shown impressive commitment to furthering this cause abroad. We should make sure to remember that the bite can be just as devastating here at home.


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