I sometimes have trouble explaining the American definition of poverty to people in Africa. In 2011 when I’d first moved to Uganda I was riding in the car with two coworkers who made UGX 300,000 per month (about $115) – which is more than double their country’s per capita income.
Chatting to each other, one remarked, “did you know that in the USA they have a minimum wage?”
“Wait, you mean there’s a minimum amount that everyone has to get paid?” the other asked incredulously.
“Yes. And guess what: the minimum is $8… per hour!”
The other one did some mental calculations. “That’s… $15,000 per year! How much is that in shillings?” He pulled out his phone calculator, punched in the numbers, and then just shook his head. “That person is rich!”
Inequality is a hot topic. It was a focus in President Obama’s state of the union address, during which he also mentioned a figure of $15,000: “If you truly believe you could work full-time and support a family on less than $15,000 a year, go try it. If not, vote to give millions of the hardest-working people in America a raise.”
That’s America. But from a global perspective, just how rich is someone who makes $15,000 a year? Here are some stats to put it in perspective:
- A person making $15,000 is in the global top 7.91% : they make more money than 6.5 billion people. (Other calculators I tried gave figures of 11.1% and 14.7%)
- $15,000 is 26 times greater than Uganda’s per capita GDP
- You need just $3,650 to be in the global top 50%.
And in addition to being safely within the top 10-15% of income earners globally, American minimum wage earners receive a host of other benefits that even the middle class in developing countries don’t have: free public education, government provided health insurance, welfare benefits, and access to good roads and public infrastructure. This is not to say that life for poor Americans is easy, but just to put some of the numbers in perspective.
So what is a just distribution of wealth? How do we define it: I.e. is it the distribution within a country, or should we look more globally? And what are the obligations of the rich to the poor? Should American minimum wage earners perhaps be made to give up a portion of their earnings to the poorer 90% of the worlds population in the name of equality?
In the coming weeks and months I’ll be exploring what living and working in some of the world’s poorest countries can tell those of us in the richest countries about how we should care for our own and others around the world: where inequality and wealth come from, and what we should do about it. We’ve lived so long with so much that the memory of what it’s like to live without – truly without – has been lost to most. Developing countries can help remind us the things we used not to have, and what it took to get to the point where we can take them for granted.