by Gwen Moritz
Posted 2/17/2014 12:00 am
Updated 5 months ago
It’s very easy to become pessimistic, and with justification. When having a majority of both houses of Congress simply agree to pay the bills they have already run up is what passes for a bipartisan breakthrough, well, you know the federal government is in bad shape. And when I consider the very real possibility that a small minority of state lawmakers could really and truly yank health insurance away from the working poor — not to mention prove that, despite such a promising innovation as the “private option,” Arkansas isn’t really ready for prime time — I want to crawl back in bed and cover my head.
I’m thankful, therefore, that a friend pointed me to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s 2014 “annual letter” from Bill Gates himself. I won’t do it justice here, so I encourage you to read it all at AnnualLetter.GatesFoundation.org. It is long, but exceedingly well organized, using both the kind of data that you’d expect from Bill Gates and personal anecdotes to support the surprising, uplifting conclusion found in the very first sentence: “By almost any measure, the world is better than it has ever been.”
Titled “3 Myths That Block Progress for the Poor,” Gates’ letter makes a persuasive case that the world really is getting better in big, global ways, which is nice to consider when much smaller problems seem to be intractable.
The first “myth” Gates takes on is “poor countries are doomed to stay poor.” The easiest way to refute that myth, he says, “is to point to one fact: They haven’t stayed poor.” The percentage of “very poor people” on our planet has dropped by more than half since 1990 — fewer than 25 years — and some of the countries that used to be the poorest now have thriving economies — not economies like the United States, but functioning and growing and thriving.
“By 2035,” Gates says, “there will be almost no poor countries left in the world.” That’s not the same as having almost no poor people, of course, but wealthier countries are able to address their own pockets of poverty in a way that poor countries cannot.
Gates is talking globally, of course, but I also like to think that states that are poor — as Arkansas has traditionally been — are not doomed to stay poor. (Unless, of course, our political leadership is weighed down with just enough ideologues who want to punish the poor for being poor in the first place. But there I go, being pessimistic again.)
The second myth Gates takes on is “foreign aid is a big waste.” This, Gates says, is generally the view of people who overestimate just how much the United States spends on foreign aid — about 1 percent of its budget — and know least about what it is spent on. Of about $30 billion in foreign aid, $11 billion goes to health initiatives and $19 billion to things like schools, roads and irrigation systems.
That $11 billion, Gates says, is about $30 for every American. “Imagine that the income tax form asked, ‘Can we use $30 of the taxes you’re already paying to protect 120 children from measles?’” he wrote. “Would you check yes or no?”
The wastefulness of aid to the needy is another global myth that we might also translate to something more local — like using the taxes we are already paying the federal government to buy private health insurance for the working poor of Arkansas. Would you check yes or no?
The third myth, one that was particularly disturbing to me, was this: “Saving lives leads to overpopulation.” In fact, Gates says, when death rates go down due to access to better health care, birth rates also go down.
We don’t hear a lot of talk about overpopulation on the state level, or even nationally, but there is considerable talk about poor people having more children than they can afford. Instead of punishing them — as if poverty weren’t punishment enough — perhaps allowing the working poor to have affordable access to non-emergency health care would ultimately reduce the number of children born into poverty.
“Anxiety about the size of the world population has a dangerous tendency to override concern for the human beings who make up that population,” Bill Gates wrote, and that reminded me of Mike Huckabee’s oft-repeated line about life beginning at conception but not ending at birth. And that’s an optimistic view if ever there was one.
Gwen Moritz is editor of Arkansas Business. Email her at GMoritz@ABPG.com.