In the beginning of time, every man was equally poor, or equally rich, depending on how you look at it. Then we discovered agriculture, and the surplus of food enabled specialization of labour, which gave birth to cities and to civilization. Since then, we’ve been more or less divided into three economic groups: The poor, the reasonably well off, and the ultra-rich.
Which group do you feel that you belong in? On a superficial level, we can divide the three groups as follows:
- The poor: This group ranges from the people who suffer from starvation and drought to the people who are able to procure the minimum of food, shelter, and clothing, but don’t have much money for anything else.
- The reasonably well-off: This group has enough economic power to satisfy their needs and some of their wants, but they still live a somewhat austere life and must spend much of their lives working.
- The ultra-rich: This group has amassed the most wealth and consumes the most resources, but also enjoys the highest living standards. They generally enjoy much better working conditions than those in the previous two groups, and oftentimes are at work in control of their own business.
There is a global rich list which you can consult to see where you stand in comparison to the rest of the world. Check out your results on the list; where do you stand?
The poor, the rich, and the ultra-rich
Let’s look over our three categories again:
The poor: Many people living in pretty much every area of the world, but especially concentrated in Africa, Asia, and South America.
The reasonably well-off: The middle class of Africa, Asia, and South America.
The ultra-rich: The middle class of North America, Europe, and parts of Asia.
Yep, if you live in North America or Europe, chances are, you belong to the class of the ultra-rich! I know you don’t feel that way, but let’s take a look at the facts:
- Most of us have access to clean water, healthy food, and high quality housing and clothing. Many in poorer countries live in dilapidated buildings or wooden huts.
- Most of us can afford to drive cars and build the highways for them, whereas many people in poorer countries rely on scooters or bicycles.
- Working standards in western nations are pretty good. Even working at Walmart for minimum wage is much better than having to work in a wet field picking rice or working in a sweatshop making shoes.
This isn’t how we usually think about this. When we assess our relative social standing, we don’t look at people halfway across the world in different situations from us; instead we look at our neighbours, friends, and coworkers, and assess our standing relative to our peers. Our efforts to be “equal” or “better” than our peers is what drives some people into a cycle of “keeping up with the Joneses”. Who can afford the biggest house? The most expensive car? The nicest plasma TV?
Instead of assessing things in this way, it sometimes helps to keep a global perspective. It can be mind-opening to visit some of these countries and realize that lifestyles in other places can be quite different. For those of us living in a rich nation, we have it pretty good. There’s no need for us to feel guilty about what we have, but there are ways that we can help out; it can feel good to share what we have and help others out. Andrew Hallam has a couple of suggestions on how we can help out.
There is a movie called “Beyond Borders” which stars Angelina Jolie and, as the main backdrop to the story, covers poverty in areas ranging from Africa, to Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge and Chechnya during the civil war. The film has been criticized for exploiting poverty in order to sell a movie, but I think that the criticism misses one of the main points of the movie, which is simply to spread awareness that we live in a world where poverty, hardship, and misfortune still exist, and that there isn’t always a happy ending in life.
So, were you surprised by your results on the global rich list? Please feel free to share your thoughts in the comments!