Lileks notes: "It’s odd how America gets slagged as the country with the Hideous Divisions between rich and poor, and no one points out how Brazil is not exactly an egalitarian society."
I haven't thought about this in quite some while. Perhaps it's because I'm rarely in NYC, where I do seem to recall quite a large number of people sleeping on streets. Or perhaps it's because I've generally lived in America, so I've become so used to the leperous masses dying in ditches that I pass by without even noticing them.
What's so important about the difference between a rich and a poor person in America that makes it so much worse than the difference between a rich and a poor person elsewhere? I can't think of anything it might be except for the actual numbers -- and not even the numbers, but only the difference between them.
The vast majority of people below the poverty line in this country ("vast majority" = "people sleeping anywhere that's not on the street, including a shelter, and not paying attention to people in jail") have a higher standard of life than the upper-middle-class people I spent the summer with. Not just the presence of toilet paper and shoes (that being a matter of personal taste or climate); the extremely low-rent neighborhood down the street from me in Austin still has a car (old and beat up, yes -- or fancy and owned by a drug dealer, but that's a different question) in front of a majority of houses, many families have a few chickens, and they're frequently blasting quite loud music from large stereo systems. (Good to know they've got their priorities straight, like the Brazilian slums I've seen with satellite dishes.) My upper-class teacher, this summer, was well-dressed, but with a very small amount of clothes (largely made out of polyester), and he was hoping to pay off his $75 debt on his motorcycle within the next few years; the motorcycle was purchased because only the very top of society can afford a family car, and he wanted to do better by his new wife than having a bicycle be the family transportation, which is what most people used (most people who had a vehicle at all, that is). There were a few people I saw who had a western standard of living (probably still without toilet paper, though!); their income was estimated to me at about $10,000-$15,000 a year, for a fancy house in a set-apart area, air conditioning, round-the-clock running water (instead of a few specific times per day), guards, imported water for the gardens, and a nice Japanese car or two. A flowerseller I met said that she was allowed to go into that area, but guards would keep the beggars out, as well as the fruit sellers (servants would be sent to purchase things outside, rather than the foodsellers transacting directly with the lady of the house at the kitchen door, as it worked in my neighborhood). There were beggars everywhere; one family I talked with from time to time lived (with all three little girls) under a slanted "hoarding" (billboard) and mended shoes. Another hunchbacked girl was kept from school (as far as I could tell, her mind was fine, but she said her back was the reason her family wouldn't let her go to school) and mended bags on the streetcorner. As a percent-relationship, I think the second through fifth percentile of people and the ninety-fifth through ninety-ninth percentiles (leaving the one percent at each end off because of far outliers -- although I'd guess that more than just one percent of people in Madurai have absolutely no wealth whatsoever) would be much more disparate in Madurai than they would in Austin, although the actual net-worth numbers would probably have a larger gap in Austin than in Madurai. Especially if what I was told was correct, and the top five percent in Madurai make what the bottom five percent in Austin make, while also living in a manner roughly equivalent to some of the nice households in Lakeway.
(I am aware that Bombay is different from Madurai, and New York is different from Austin, but Madurai in relation to the rest of the country is much like Austin in relation to the rest of the country, so I feel it's a reasonable comparison.)
So why the concern about distribution of wealth? If it's that Americans, taken as individuals and compared to a real or imagined ideal, do not do enough to help the needier members of their own society, regardless of how extremely wealthy those needier members may be compared to the needier members of other societies, then I'll agree. (I'll agree from a Christian or Libertarian perspective, however -- saying that it should still be up to the individual and his conscience/moral code/religious beliefs what he should do about that, rather than up to the government how much money he should be forced to give to others.) Similarly, if it's that Americans, as individuals and compared to a real or imagined ideal, do not do enough to help suffering people around the world, then I'll agree. But if it's what I often hear, that Americans, taken as an entire country and compared to other countries, are evil/corrupt/selfish/whatnot because the raw difference between the wealthiest and least-wealthy here is greater than the same difference elsewhere, with no regard for what, exactly, that "least wealthy" means, then I'll disagree. Similarly, if it's that, once you define the bottom ten percent of families as "poor," regardless of where they live (in a flop house in NYC or on a farm in North Carolina) or how they live, then (gasp!) ten percent of families are poor, then I'll disagree with your thought processes. Want to talk about poor? Either make ultra-local definitions (the bottom three percent in the Hamptons, and the bottom three percent in Fourth Ward in Houston, are both "poor") and openly acknowledge that any comparisons are silly, or make absolute worldwide definitions, at which point many of America's poor will be surprised to find themselves wealthy (although, if someone with too much time and money started a mandatory exchange program for people ungrateful for what they have -- including my well-off and materialist cousin, they would probably be forced to admit to themselves that they are actually wealthy).
Think I'm just shooting off about something I know nothing about? Then come with me to a charity my church is connected with. The people who come there, mostly from Latin America, desperately need food and warm clothes. However, they'll often say how much better they have it here than where they came from -- there they didn't have enough food either (although I'd bet there wasn't as much need for warm clothes), but in America there is no shortage of places they can go to get free food and clothes and even a place to stay the night. I'd say there is a shortage of such places, and those that claim a moral authority (the church, the Democrat Party, whoever) needs to do more about exhorting their members to participate (myself quite definitely included), but we're doing a lot better than so many other places; if people in other countries will openly admit that they feel they are fulfilling their dreams by coming to America and being at the absolute bottom of income and society, then we are doing a good job, no matter what the complainers might say.