The One Percent Solution

More than a billion people now live on less than the purchasing power equivalent, in their own country, of what can be bought in the US for $1.00. In the year 2000, Americans made private donations for foreign aid of all kinds totaling about $4 per person, or roughly $20 per family. Through their government, they gave another $10 per person, or $50 per family. That makes a total of $70 per family.

In comparison, in the aftermath of the destruction of the World Trade Center, the American Red Cross received so much money that it abandoned any attempt to examine how much help potential recipients needed. It drew a line across lower Manhattan and offered anyone living below that line the equivalent of three months' rent (or, if they owned their own apartment, three months' mortgage and maintenance payments). If recipients claimed to have been affected by the destruction of the Twin Towers, they received money for utilities and groceries as well.

Most residents of the area below the line were not displaced or evacuated, but they were offered mortgage or rent assistance nonetheless. Red Cross volunteers set up card tables in the lobbies of expensive apartment buildings where financial analysts, lawyers, and rock stars live, to inform residents of the offer. The higher the rent people paid, the more money they got. New Yorkers, wealthy or not, living in lower Manhattan on September 11, 2001, were able to receive an average of $5,300 per family.

The difference between $70 and $5,300 may be a solid indication of the relative weight that Americans give to the interests of their fellow citizens compared with what they give to people elsewhere. Even that underestimates the difference, since the Americans who received the money generally had less need of it than the world's poorest people.

At the UN Millennium Summit, the nations of the world committed themselves to a set of targets, prominent among which was halving the number of people living in poverty by 2015. The World Bank estimated the cost of meeting these targets to be an additional $40-$60 billion per year. So far the money has not been forthcoming.

Although described as "ambitious," the millennium goals are modest, for to halve the number of people living in poverty, all that is required - over 15 years - is to reach the better-off half of the world's poorest people, and move them marginally above the poverty line. That could, in theory, leave the worst-off 500 million people in poverty just as dire as they are now experiencing. Moreover, during every day of those 15 years, thousands of children will die from poverty-related causes.

How much would it require, per person, to raise the necessary $40-60 billion? There are about 900 million people in the developed world, 600 million of them adults. A donation of about $100 per adult per year for the next 15 years could achieve the Millennium goals. For someone earning $27,500 per annum, the average salary in the developed world, this is less than 0.4% of annual income, or less than 1 cent out of every $2 that they earn.

Of course, not all residents of rich countries have income to spare after meeting their basic needs. But there are hundreds of millions of rich people who live in poor countries, and they could also give. We could, therefore, advocate that everyone with income to spare, after meeting their family's basic needs, should contribute a minimum of 0.4% of their income to organizations working to help the world's poorest people, and that would probably be enough to meet the Millennium goals.

A more useful symbolic figure than 0.4% would be 1%, and this, added to existing levels of government aid (which in every country of the world except Denmark fall below 1% of GNP, and in the US is only 0.1%) might be closer to what it would take to eliminate, rather than halve, global poverty.

We tend to think of charity as something that is "morally optional" - good to do, but not wrong to fail to do. As long as one does not kill, maim, steal, cheat, and so on, one can be a morally virtuous citizen, even if one spends lavishly and gives nothing to charity. But those who have enough to spend on luxuries, yet fail to share even a tiny fraction of their income with the poor, must bear some responsibility for the deaths they could have prevented. Those who do not meet even the minimal 1% standard should be seen as doing something that is morally wrong.

Anyone who thinks about their ethical obligations will rightly decide that - since, no matter what we do, not everyone will give even 1% - they should do more. I have in the past advocated giving much larger sums. But if, in order to change our standards in a manner that stands a realistic chance of success, we focus on what we can expect everyone to do, there is something to be said for setting a donation of 1% of annual income to overcome world poverty as the bare minimum that one must do to lead a morally decent life.

To give that amount requires no moral heroics. To fail to give it shows indifference to the continuation of dire poverty and avoidable, poverty-related deaths.