Are we generous enough?

Published: Thursday, January 6, 2005 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, January 5, 2005 at 10:29 p.m.

After a slow official U.S. response to one of the greatest natural disasters of all time, our government's assistance to victims of the Southeast Asia tsunami seems to be catching up with the wave of private contributions by Americans, many made instinctively and rapidly over the Internet.

"We're a generous, kindhearted nation," proclaimed President Bush, shaking off critics who had noted the $35 million Washington initially offered was no more than we spend in seven hours of military operations in Iraq.

Still, the tsunami raises interesting questions about Americans' generosity. Especially: Are we great at short-term disaster aid, but off the mark when it comes to thoughtful long-term assistance that helps people - at home and abroad - build self-sufficient lives that translate into economic and political security?

Foreign economic assistance represents a minuscule percentage of the U.S. federal budget. In recent years, the European Union has been far ahead of the United States in aid for developing nations.

At home, we do have a level of private giving that no other part of the world even comes close to equaling, with 89 percent of American households contributing to charities or religious institutions, the Independent Sector, which tracks philanthropic giving, reports.

But the stark fact, labor economist Sam Pizzigati points out in his new book, "Greed and Good," is that income disparity between classes of Americans has soared to heights reminiscent of the post-Civil War Gilded Age when "robber barons" of steel and rail and oil squeezed gargantuan fortunes out of workers and consumers alike.

During the 1990s, average worker pay barely outpaced inflation. But the most affluent 5 percent of families saw their incomes rise 111 percent.

As for corporate CEOs, they saw their pay soar 571 percent in the 1990s, to a $10 million-plus average. An average worker would have to labor centuries, and in extreme cases a millennium, to equal what some of these plutocrats cart home in a year.

Yet our tax codes are packed with special breaks for the affluent, and the Bush-era tax cuts are enriching them even more. Contrast that with the fate of a minimum wage worker - paid $3.35 hourly in 1981, $5.15 since 1997. That is well below the poverty level, and too little, in most regions, to afford even a modest apartment. The federal figure is so low that some states (most recently Florida and New York) have increased the level independently.

Do mega-chasms in income make a difference? Yes, asserts Pizzigati: "The greater the greed, the greater the strain on the bonds that make societies good, communities human." Deep income division is "the root of what ails us as a nation, a social cancer that coarsens our culture, endangers our economy, distorts our democracy, even limits our lifespans."

The rich and super-rich move into mansions and gated communities, losing touch with the "commons" of everyday life, ceding a bit of their humanity in the process. Stingy politics punishes the poor, children most alarmingly, denying, for example, government aid for early childhood care and basic health services. In 2000, 9.8 percent of French children lived in poverty; in the Netherlands, 8.4 percent; in Sweden, 3.7 percent. But in the United States, 26.3 percent of children were growing up in poverty.

The tragedy is that 50 years ago we made such radically better decisions. We invested in people. We democratized higher education with the GI Bill. We used federally guaranteed loans to open housing opportunities to an expanding middle class. We put vast public wealth into infrastructure, from schools to cyclotrons to interstate highways. In the 1960s, we launched a war on poverty. Through these policies, we boosted our productivity dramatically, cementing our position as global economic leader.

So how do we now become, in fact as well as fiction, the "generous, kindhearted nation" the president claims we are? For starters, we could make a bold maneuver to tame our extreme income differentials. Rep. Martin Sabo, D-Minn., has authored an Income Equity Act to do just that. The highest and lowest pay in a corporation would be linked. Any executive compensation package (stock options included) that's worth more than 25 times the pay of the firm's lowest-paid worker would no longer be a tax-deductible corporate expense.

With Sabo's bill, CEOs would actually have an incentive to raise

wages of their lowest-paid employees.

Generosity would benefit them personally - a metaphor for how we Americans now need to see the entire world.

Neal Peirce writes for The Washington Post.

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