What's The Good Life?

A Socrates living today might look at new data on vanishing poverty in the US and ask how Americans are dealing with all their wealth.

The numbers are rather numbing.

Poverty for all racial groups except whites is at a historic low. And poverty's decline is the most dramatic in inner cities. Median income has topped $40,000, Census data finds.

People living in "extreme" poverty are down to 4.6 percent. And on the other extreme, where dotcom riches reign, personal income from capital investments nearly tripled in just five years from 1993 to 1998.

These good times have driven consumer spending to a new high - and personal debt, too.

Wealth for what?

"Is this the good life?" a Socrates might well ask today, as he did of his students in ancient Athens.

The question forces a society to step back and see that it cannot create wealth just for wealth's sake. Money is a means, not an end. Today's politicians who simply ask "Are you better off than you were four years ago?" are not leading but pandering.

But the new data on the nation's abundance suggests a firmer commitment in Washington and elsewhere to both raise up the poor and to alleviate wide disparities in wealth.

On both measures, the US has a "better life" if not a "good life." Distributing wealth while also creating wealth is the best sign of a compassionate society, one that avoids the class warfare and economic elitism that denies opportunities for all. Wealth, it should be remembered, can be more than just material success.

Both Democrats and Republicans have signed on to the idea that general economic growth can both reduce poverty and income inequalities. "The rising tide of the economy is lifting all boats," President Clinton said Tuesday, echoing President Reagan.

World growth and the poor

And globally, too, more nations now understand that a healthy economy raises rich and poor alike.

A recent World Bank study of 80 nations over four decades found that the incomes of the poor go up as much as the incomes of everybody else in a growing economy. And global growth, driven by open trade, reduces inequality among nations.

The rich do not get richer first and then wealth just "trickles down" to the poor, the study found. Wealth rises for all when economic growth rises. Income distribution also improves when governments cut inflation and cut public spending (since high public spending can impede growth).

Wealth not only raises standards of living but, if fairly spread across the population, creates better societies.

Poverty has not disappeared, but its dramatic decline in the US helps put the new wealth in perspective.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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