Tuesday, June 14, 2011

For Only....

I was cleaning up my apartment a little today, and I came across an old advertisement that I had received in the mail from Heifer International. Having ever in your life subscribed to a newspaper or expressed interest in a political cause seems to mark you as someone who probably has disposable income, so I have gotten a number of donation requests from charitable organizations. Virtually all of them strike me as worthwhile causes, and it upsets me each time that I simply do not have the money to donate to them. But Heifer International stood out very prominently among them.

Beneath the front cover, the pamphlet announced that a gift of five hundred dollars could buy a heifer for a third-world family. With compelling copywriting, it explained that one dairy cow could produce as much as four gallons of milk per day – enough for an entire family to drink and share with its neighbors and still have enough to sell. It continued to point out that by producing calves for other families, one cow could be instrumental in moving the whole of a community out of poverty. These extremely bold and shockingly plausible claims made me feel more shame about my persistent lack of financial security than I had ever felt before.

Five hundred dollars is no small sum of money, but it is very definitely an amount that is available at the end of the month for those people we generally conceive of as the default American citizen. The median household income in the United States in 2009 was over 50,000 dollars. I’m sure that to some people that does not seem like a tremendous amount of money, but I’m equally sure that some people have no idea how spoiled they can be. Considering that people around me routinely support themselves with annual incomes well under 20,000 dollars a year, there is no doubt that more than doubling that should leave a great deal of money left over, if only the household didn’t strive to consequently extend its standard of living well beyond what is prudent.

The awareness of what five hundred dollars could do for a third-world family, or even for a working-class American family, painfully reminds me that we collectively have the means at our fingertips to solve the problems that are surrounding us every day. Five hundred dollars is presently a huge sum to me, but apparently I am atypical of the American experience. Why, then, does that typical American not hold himself to a higher social standard? Am I deluding myself when I think that I would sooner buy a heifer for each of a hundred families than buy a house when I already have a rented roof over my head? Or does all of this just suggest that the wrong people are well-off?

Is there any way to bring people to a breaking point in their view of financial entitlement, short of standing them face-to-face with a malnourished family and asking them if they’d still rather hold onto that five hundred dollars for their next home theater upgrade? And would even that not sway some people?

We have the means to solve these problems. It’s in our hands. It’s in our hands, but we’re clutching it tight for ourselves, instead of putting it to good use.

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