Western privilege – or trying to keep our problems in perspective

You have more than you think.

This post will probably ruffle some feathers, but it might also make people reexamine their place in life. I’d say that’s a good trade-off, eh?

I’m an odd duck: I’m a double immigrant (first to the US, then to Canada). I started off in a broke Soviet family with seven people (and a dog) crammed into three rooms, and I ended up as the financial analyst at one of Amazon’s largest warehouses before I finally retired at 34.

I was born in a place where you had to stand in line to get some green, moldy, expired butter. (There were actual government posters that decreed how green was too green.) I ended up working in departments that had chocolate fountains and $100 gift card raffles every 15 minutes at their Christmas parties. I’ve seen a lot of economic inequality.

Based on what I’ve seen, what I’ve lived through, what I’ve experienced, I’ll never truly fit in with the rest of my generation or adopted culture, with those who grew up among abundance, who flaunt $1,000 phones and get cars on their 16th birthday.

At the same time, I must be very cognizant of my own many, many privileges. I am a tall white cis male with great hair and plenty of educational and economic opportunities. There are many aspects of economic inequality I’ve learned along the way, but there are many, many more that I may not even imagine. This is an upward slope. The only time I’ve ever really been a minority is here, in Quebec, where English speakers are called “Anglos” and make up our own little enclave in this French-speaking province.

My ridiculous privilege is a blinder, but it’s counteracted (at least in part) by my bizarre money journey: from flipping burgers at McDonald’s, to exorbitant Finance parties, to walking away from it all so I could live on $1,000 USD a month. With that in mind, take my words with a big grain of salt. (As you should always do, no matter who is speaking.) With this long introduction out of the way, I’ll get to the point. You have more than you think.

As of this writing, there’s just over 7.7 billion people on this strange little planet. Almost half of them (3.3 billion people) live on less than $5.50 a day. Almost a quarter (1.8 billion people) live on less than $3.20 USD a day.  Almost 10% live on less than $1.90 a day. These fascinating (and horrifying) numbers are from the World Bank’s 2020 Poverty and Shared Prosperity report, which makes for some interesting and insightful reading.

These Eritrean kids would love to have our problems.

When I started this blog, I promised there wouldn’t be anything about politics or religion, and I’m staying true to that promise. This is about our shared perspectives, and about the scale of what we perceive to be our economic problems.

If you make $1,814 or more per month, congrats – you’re in the top 30%!

As a society, we talk a lot about the top 1%. Well, the good news is that you’re almost certainly in the top 30%, if not the top 20%. This 2019 report on global labour income share and distribution has a mind-blowing chart that shows the worldwide average earnings distribution. The bottom 10% of the world’s workers make $22 USD a month. Not $22 an hour, or even a day – $22 a month. Stop and consider this for a bit.

If you’re still there and haven’t unfollowed me – thanks! Conversely, the top 10% of the world’s earners make $7,475 USD a month. If you make $89,700 a year, congratulations, you’re among the top 10%. If you make $1,814 USD a month, that puts you in the top 30%, or the eighth decile if you’d rather be fancy.

Of course, those are absolute numbers: someone making $1,800 a month in the States is hardly rich. There’s extreme poverty and then there’s relative poverty. Even in rich western countries, there’s remarkable difference in wealth distribution. I’m not trying to minimize the seriousness or severity of stress people experience when they’re hounded by student loan payments, or medical bills, or sky-high rent prices.

But even so… Assuming you’re middle class or higher, assuming you have some disposable income and don’t have to stay up all night figuring out how to pay all the bills (been there, done that), there is a lot this inequality data can teach us. You have more than you think. If you think. If you question. Aside from the problems that affect every human being (loss of a loved one, chronic health issues, etc), how much of our everyday stress comes from petty annoyances that don’t really matter?

Does it really matter if your coffeeshop messed up your coffee order? Or if the local fast food joint ran out of bacon and gave you a subpar cheeseburger? Does it matter if you can’t afford the latest iPhone while all your friends and coworkers are bragging about theirs? Does it matter if you still can’t get your hands on that latest video game console? Does it matter if, while you sit in your air-conditioned, fairly spacious home, without any explosions or gunfights outside your windows, your internet connection is a bit slower than you’re used to?

In my personal and subjective experience, stuff like that can ruin a lot of people’s day. I think we’ve all seen viral videos of angry shoppers that throw a fit in public because they couldn’t find whatever it was they were shopping for. It’s fun (if a bit cruel) to mock those overgrown toddlers, but they’re just on the far end of the same bell curve that all of us are on. Losing even a tiny bit of their economic comfort is enough to ruin their day.

None of this is to say that we should be complacent or accept our lot in life. (“Think of all the starving children in Africa!” etc) Nah. This isn’t that kind of post. Everyone should try to improve their life in an ethical manner that doesn’t harm others. Everyone would benefit from being more thoughtful, too.

So what are my recommendations? Just three. First, reflect on where you are compared to the rest of the world next time something doesn’t quite go according to plan. (The rental car company made you wait 20 minutes? That sucks, but there are billions of people who will never even get to drive a car.)

Second, try to practice gratefulness. No, I’m not talking about healing crystals and scented candles and meditation – this will only take a minute. Each day, stop and think about three things you appreciate in your life. Say them out loud, if only to yourself. That really does help, and it doesn’t need to be anything big. For example, today I’m grateful for having a great diner just a block away. (I’ll go there to celebrate once I finish this post.) I’m grateful for living in a spacious and (mostly) quiet apartment. I’m grateful for all the fun and wholesome online communities that I’m part of.

And third, do what you can to help the poorest of the poor. There are always charities in need of help, but if you donate to international charities, your money can help a lot more people. Personally, I’m a big fan of Heifer International: they help poor communities get livestock, care for their animals (or bees!), and use the animal produce to fight hunger and poverty. There are other charities out there, too: find one that you like best, give them what you can, and I promise – that’ll feel a lot more rewarding than spending that money on some gadget you’ll abandon within three years.

You have more than you think. Be mindful of that. Earn more, spend less, invest the rest – and don’t forget to donate, eh?

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