Paul Little at large
Paul Little is a Herald on Sunday columnist

Paul Little: Don't blame the wealthy, they don't create poverty

In 1950, 75 per cent of people lived in extreme poverty. Today, just 10 per cent do. Photo / Michael Craig
In 1950, 75 per cent of people lived in extreme poverty. Today, just 10 per cent do. Photo / Michael Craig

Oxfam tells us that the world's richest eight people have as much money as its 3.6 billion poorest people. It sounds shocking. But what, if anything, does it really mean?

There are many very poor people in the world. There are also a few very rich people. That's about it.

But it's not clear how much of the world's total wealth the big eight account for. So we don't know how much the top half of the population (3.6 billion people minus eight) have. One-third? One-quarter?

It's like being told one person has 12 oranges and a group of 100 people have 12 oranges, but not how many oranges there are.

Do you own a mortgage-free home in Auckland? You're part of the global richest 1 per cent.

We may not have known that Graeme Hart and Richard Chandler (of whom it has been said: "Who?") are the two richest living New Zealanders and that 1 per cent of New Zealanders have 20 per cent of the country's wealth and 90 per cent of us have less than 50 per cent.

The march of meaningless statistics goes on and on.

No one, so far as I could tell, performed the piece of arithmetic which tells you how much better off the bottom 3.6 billion people would be if the top eight's money was magically shared out among them. The answer is $118, which would be a lot to them but not a lot of use in the long term.

Spare a thought for the super-rich. They are either crazy - their wealth permitting them to indulge their tastes untrammelled - or miserable, often both.

After a certain point there's nothing left to buy. They spend a lot of time worrying about whether they have any genuine relationships or whether we just like them for their money. And they spend even more time worrying that the rich guy next door is richer than they are.

Minister for Saying Ridiculous Stuff Steven Joyce agrees with me that Oxfam's comparisons are "a bit nonsensical", saying, "The aim for a country like New Zealand is to encourage more Kiwis to be successful on the world stage, whether in business, sport or in world organisations [by] providing a quality education and investment in social services."

So there are your priorities outlined for you - not happiness, not health, not wellbeing, not security or any of the other things we poor folks spend our time worrying about, but success on the world stage.

Let's all promise to do our best.

But in the meantime, let's spare a few thoughts for the 3.6 billion. I don't care how much the richest have as long as the poorest have enough, and it's debatable to what extent the two are related. It's not necessarily the case that the more the rich have, the less the poor have.

What matters is not relative wealth so much as absolute wealth and wellbeing. Do the people at the bottom have more food, better health and greater life expectancy than they used to? Yes.

One example: In 1950, 75 per cent of people lived in extreme poverty (defined as less than $1.90 a day). Today just 10 per cent of the world's population is in that state. In fact, every day since 1990 the number of people in extreme poverty has fallen by 130,000.

Another example: as recently as 2000, 7.5 per cent of children died before the age of five. That percentage is now 4.25.

This is good news but no excuse for complacency. By all means, let's get hot and bothered about the plight of the world's poorest people, but don't blame the wealthiest ones. They have enough problems already.

- Herald on Sunday

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