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Income inequality: Should the rich pay?

Helping the poor starts with us

A recent report from Oxfam*, “Wealth: Having it all and wanting more,” paints a glaring contrast. The world’s richest 80 people doubled their money in the last five years. It projects that by 2016 the top one per cent of the world’s population will be as wealthy as the bottom 99 per cent combined.

Responses to the report cover the waterfront. Many agree with Oxfam that the increasing concentration of wealth is bad for everyone. But naysayers argue that if you divided all the wealth in the world evenly, inequalities would emerge almost immediately.

Oxfam’s concerns contrast with another current report from a major accounting firm on my desk. It focuses on the increasing efforts many countries are making to tax the wealthy. It attributes renewed government interest in making the rich pay to the glare of public scrutiny. Data leaks involving millions of so-called untouchable offshore bank accounts have helped to spur political leaders to action.

But Oxfam’s concerns go much deeper than just taxes, and I’m convinced their report gets a lot of things right. Oxfam Canada’s executive director states, “Extreme inequality is bad for everyone. Countries that are more unequal have higher crime rates, particularly violent crime, and more social instability, including mental illness, incarceration and addiction. Extreme inequality is bad for growth, for democracy, for women, for our health and for the environment. Most importantly, the rapid increase in inequality is standing in the way of eliminating poverty.”

These are complex issues with no easy answers. That many wealthy people have significant influence in government circles is only one of the issues. If simply throwing money at the poor would improve things, you’d expect to see more benefits from the trillions spent helping so-called poor countries over the last decades. But according to Oxfam, more than a billion people are still living on less than $1.25 a day.

Should we be concerned? Deeply! From cover to cover, the Bible exhorts us to help the poor. Each of us can help to keep the social and political winds blowing in favour of reducing inequality. But there’s more! The best way to help may not be what you think.

According to the authors of the book and video series, “When Helping Hurts,” there are four key relationships necessary for the alleviation of poverty and the development of emotionally healthy communities: reconciliation with God, self, others and the rest of creation. Unless we address the brokenness in all four relationships, our efforts to help the poor will have limited success and may even harm the intended recipients.

Canadians tend to view issues of poverty primarily from a “material” perspective. That easily morphs into feelings of pride and superiority. To really make a difference we need to start by acknowledging our own brokenness and changing our own lives and attitudes. As long as we think we can help the poor by doing it “to them” instead of “with them” our efforts will likely fall short.

*Oxfam is an international confederation of 17 organizations networked together in 94 countries, as part of a global movement for change, to build a future free from the injustice of poverty.

Henry Friesen is a chartered accountant who is changing his thinking on poverty issues near Winnipeg, Manitoba.

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About the author

Henry Friesen is a chartered accountant who lives in a small town near Winnipeg, Manitoba.