A couple of years ago, I attended a small gathering of Maryknoll Affiliates at St. Isaac Jogues, in Hinsdale, Illinois, where the presenters were asking a question that appeared relevant: "Do the poor count?" As I said then, of course the poor do NOT count, in the sense that they are rarely, if ever, taken into consideration when the powerful in the world make decisions impacting entire nations and even the whole world's dynamics.
As I said then, the question to ask is: "SHOULD the poor count?".
As a businessman, my answer has consistently be: "Of course they should count. If not for anything else, because the poor represent a massive opportunity for market growth". Let me give you an example. If I were in the food business, like Archer Daniels Midland that wants to be "Supermarket to the World" or like Bunge that claims "The World is Our Market", I would want the 1 billion people who cannot afford to buy enough food to eat, who are at various degrees of starvation, to become my customers. In other words, it would matter to my company if they could afford to buy our food products. Imagine, one billion people! I can see dollar signs (or Euros) everywhere.
I couple of days ago, the author of "Naked Economics: Undressing the Dismal Science", Charles Wheelan, a lecturer at the University of Chicago, published a column on Yahoo! Finance that reformulates the Affiliates' question in terms that are closer to the American experience: "Why Income Inequality Matters". He is wondering if we should care about the "size of the gap" between the rich and the poor, such as, let's say, between the Wall Street executive taking home a $50 million bonus (some did this last December) and himself, the professor, who has never gotten more than a $ 1,000 bonus.
Mr. Wheelan uses the so-called Gini Coeficient that measures a country's distribution of income to assess where we are currently as a society in comparison with other countries in the world. The Gini assigns a coefficient of "0" (zero) to absolute equality in income and "1" to absolute inequality (one person controls all the wealth). In that scale, Japan and Sweden have a rating of 0.25, while the United States have a rating of 0.47 (almost twice as much inequality), much closer to Brazil with a rating of 0.58.
In his article, Mr. Wheelan calls to our attention the fact that many Brazilians at the bottom of the income scale have decided not to play any longer according to the social rules established mostly by the people at the top of the scale. Consequently, the very rich have to barricade themselves in their luxurious neighborhoods to protect themselves from the lawlessness that constantly expands like a plague in the urban areas of the country.
The author makes two reflections that I consider worth of our attention.
1. As Americans we know that wealth motivates many people to work and to invent, to invest and to innovate. We are proud of our free-market society and praise the opportunities that we have to grow and to prosper. The reason for that is the fact that many of us see a path between where we start in life and where we want to get. An ambitious young woman entering college last September with student loans, may be propelled in the years to come by the possibility of one day getting a $50 million bonus like the Wall Street executives in 2006. In this case the income gap is a positive force.
2. On the other side, the residents of the Brazilian favelas (the neighborhoods of misery and crime) no longer see any path to the luxurious lives of the obscenely rich in Brazil. The income gap is so enormous and the social structures so slanted in favor of the extremely rich that the opportunity factor has vanished. In this case the income gap is destroying Brazilian society.
The problem is that, if we read the Gini Coefficient for our country, we are much closer to Brazil than we are to Japan or Sweden. In fact we are 22 points more unequal then Japan and only 11 points less unequal than Brazil. How long will it take before our slum-dwellers lose the path to prosperity? Even worse, how long will it take before the young lady entering college loses the path to prosperity? And, what will happen then? I am considering moving to Albuquerque because, there, new houses are built behind solid fences and guarded gates.
The conclusion that can be drawn from these remarks is that the poor, at different levels and in a variety of contexts, matter terribly. Their fate, from a socio-economic point of view, is tied to the well-being of everyone else. This is not a matter of charity or generosity only. This is a key political and economic issue that is obscured by the opportunistic moral debate in our country. Maybe there is something that the Gospel imperative to care for the "least of my brothers" might really teach to all of us, including our religious and political leaders.