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the St. Louis Post-Dispatch

Keep Your Poor. Our Masses are Huddled at the Mall.

A couple weeks ago, in the wake of Vice President Dick Cheney's suggestion that energy conservation was for wimps, someone asked Ari Fleisher, President George W. Bush's press secretary, whether the president thought that Americans should cut back on their energy consumption."

That's a big no," Fleisher said. "The president believes that it's an American way of life. The American way of life is a blessed one. And we have a bounty of resources in this country."

There's a lot to chew on in that remark. In many ways, you can hardly argue with it. We are truly blessed. Our attitude toward consumption was best expressed by Jay Leno in a Doritos commercial: "Don't worry. We'll make more."

The question is whether we should feel guilty about it.

If you believe, say, Rush Limbaugh, the answer is another "big no." We are achievers. Like the faithful servant in the Gospels, we are given talents and have multiplied them manyfold. Like energy conservation, guilt is for wimps.

But it says elsewhere in the Gospels -- indeed, it is the core message -- that we are to share our blessings with the poor. Sodom and Gomorra were destroyed not for their perversions, but because they would not help the poor. Maybe the Bible is for wimps, too.

Last week the United Nations held a conference in Brussels on the question of aid to what the United Nations calls "least developed countries." These are the 49 nations where per capita income averages about $1 a day. U.N. policy is that rich nations should donate 7/10ths of 1 percent of their gross national product to help developing nations, with about a third of that going to the least developed countries. By this standard, the U.S. contribution would be about $70 billion a year. In fact, the U.S. contribution this year is about $5 billion.

There are many reasons why this is so. Americans don't much like "foreign aid." Many of the least developed nations are run by crooks who steal the money and line their own pockets. Many of them are at war -- as soon as bags of rice are kicked out the door of relief planes, they are stolen by warlords.


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And too, we have plenty of poor people of our own. They're not poor by the standards of say, Burkina Faso, but they're suffering, too. Charity begins at home.

These matters are excruciatingly uncomfortable. World poverty is one of those great, big, scary problems that beg solutions, so we pretty much ignore the nagging sense of guilt and head for the mall.

The basic issue is income inequality, and that is the fault line around which all politics dances.

Domestically, it dances in the debate over the distribution of the president's tax cut (20 percent of the benefits to those earning $373,000 a year or more) and the talk about repealing inheritance taxes (affectingly only the richest 2 percent) and the explosion in the pay of chief executives (up 535 percent in the 1990s).

Internationally, the debate dances in U.N. statistics like this: The richest 20 percent of the world's people eat 45 percent of all its fish and meat (a measure of health) and use 87 percent of all of its paper (a measure of education). The richest 20 percent use 58 percent of all the world's energy, 17 times as much as the poorest fifth.

According to the United Nations, the 225 richest people in the world have wealth equal to the annual income of the 2.8 billion poorest people in the world. Spending $40 billion a year, the United Nations said, would take care of the world's basic needs in food, health care, education, clean water and sewers.

One more statistic, the one the United Nations calls the "human development index," a measure based on life expectancy, education, literacy and national wealth. A score of 100 is as good as it gets. Canada is No. 1, at 96, the United States is number 4, at 94.3. At the bottom is Sierra Leone, at 18.5.

When it comes to world poverty, our national policy seems to be this: Catch Canada.

Kevin Horrigan

Kevin Horrigan is a member of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch editorial page staff.

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