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Mark Moore

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Caring About the Poor

Posted: 02/ 3/2012 5:52 pm

To be fair, his quote was taken out of context. But "I'm not concerned about the very poor," is sure to dog Mitt Romney through the fall campaign, just like his earlier comments about the chump change he made giving speeches -- more than $300,000 -- and his willingness to bet Rick Perry $10,000 without a moment's hesitation.

To be honest, I don't have any personal feelings about Governor Romney or about any of the prospective candidates. But I think our attitudes toward the poor need some examining. And while I'm sure Mitt was speaking about the poor here at home, the issue of poverty is really a global problem and the poor here in the U.S. are just a small part of it.

I think it helps to understand a basic truth that most aid workers in the developing world learn pretty quickly. Factors present at birth, like how healthy, wealthy and educated your parents are, have almost everything to do with how your own life will turn out. Most important, of course, is where you were born. I spent almost 10 years working with the poor in Uganda, and not a day went by when I didn't wonder how different my life would've been if I had been born in Africa instead of America.

Sure we all have free will, and history is full of examples of people who have risen above their circumstances to achieve wealth and success. But the exceptions prove the rule. Most people born in poverty, live in poverty and eventually die in poverty. You've heard the expression, "He was born on third base and thinks he hit a triple?" Well, that could apply to almost all of us in the developed world. Through the accident of geography, we were fortunate enough to be born on third base. Millions of others, in the dark dugouts of global poverty, never even get to play the game.

New York Times reporter Adam Nossiter recently described daily life in the Democratic Republic of Congo, one of the poorest nations on earth. In his "Kinshasa Journal," he wrote about a practice the locals refer to as "délestage." In French it means "power cut," as in the rolling blackouts that routinely leave whole neighborhoods in the dark. But the Congolese have adapted the term to describe something more serious than going without electricity. To them it means, "Today we eat. Tomorrow we don't." Eating by "délestage" means children get to eat one day, their parents the next.

The fact that there are poor, hungry people in this world isn't news to any thoughtful person, and in my experience, neither Democrats nor Republicans have any special claim to empathy. But I keep asking myself why more isn't being done to address this problem, because empathy aside, extreme poverty is extremely bad for everyone. The poor, of course, suffer the most. But those of us in the developed world suffer too, though we may not know it.

The money Europeans, North Americans and others spend on feeding the poor and the hungry in the developing world is substantial. The OECD pegs foreign aid by the developed world at well over $100 billion a year. Closer to home, the factory I run in Georgia produces fortified peanut butter that's used to save the lives of starving children. We can't make it fast enough.

But the cost of poverty goes beyond the direct costs of feeding the poor. To be cold and calculating about it, people who are too poor and too hungry to work represent a major drain on global productivity. And with no money in their pockets, they're too poor to buy the goods and services produced by the industrialized world. As every capitalist should appreciate, though many apparently don't, the poor are bad for business.

The poor are also bad for democracy, as we have seen time and again in the developing world. People deciding whether Tuesday is the day their kids get to eat don't make model citizens. So I suppose it's understandable that many are glad to trade their votes for a piece of bread.

Among those who care about global poverty, there are deep divisions about the best way to address the problem. Some insist that it's best to focus on long-term development, while others think giving a starving child a life-saving meal should take priority. But both sides understand that it's critically important to solve the problems of poverty and hunger, for all our sakes.

As for Governor Romney, I'm willing to cut him some slack. It can't be easy waking up every morning and knowing that any misstatement you make is going to go viral on YouTube. But as he continues to clarify and explain what he meant to say, I hope he takes the opportunity to pause for a moment to really think about the plight of the "very poor." And I hope, in the end, he is concerned. We all should be.