Recent estimations are that the top 5 percent of the nation's rich control more than 40 to 50 percent of the wealth in the United States. One out of every five Iraqi children under the age of 8 is an orphan. And last week former President Bill Clinton announced an agreement with several drug companies to offer HIV/AIDS tests and drugs at drastically reduced prices. The accompanying statistic that 40 million people now are afflicted with the disease made the news even more important.
Normally, I ignore statistics. First, I mistrust many of them and always try to take enough time to analyze their sources and their samples. I have enough respect for the power of propaganda to be wary of unexamined pronouncements. Nonetheless, these three "facts" inspired me enough to look behind the numbers.
The first statistic reminds me that living in the paradise resort of the Wood River Valley, one is often painfully aware of the disparity between rich and poor. Lately, though, I have sensed even more the gap between the most affluent and increasingly narrow middle class. New tax laws designed to aid the extremely wealthy will only add to the chasm.
Any town that relies on worker bees to provide services for a tourist economy will have this evident gap, of course. I feel it rather keenly in spite of my realization that I am so much more fortunate than the vast majority of the world's inhabitants. My income is very modest, and yet I eat well and have the beauty of my home and the landscape around me. I count myself fortunate, however, not to be part of a young family seeking housing. I heard on National Public Radio the other day that during Prime Minister Tony Blair's tenure in England, the gross national income rose by 67 percent—sounds terrific—but the cost of housing had risen over 300 percent. Go figure. I told my English friend what I was paid per hour for one of my part-time jobs; he replied that in London even $35 per hour is considered an insult.
So it is all relative, but it worries me when the gardeners outside are barely making ends meet while I overhear 6-year-olds exchanging comparisons about which color iPod they are getting for their upcoming trips. In a very materialistic society, perhaps "normality" is measured by the likes of Donald Trump's admirers or by people who want to save Paris Hilton from serving a short jail term, but it still worries me. "The American Dream" used to be a realistic one.
The second statistic, about Iraqi orphans, made me furious. It is hard to imagine a culture welcoming us as liberators when so many of its citizens have been wounded in unimaginable ways. We are saddened by horrible statistics about our own military's deaths, but whenever I hear of yet another suicide bomb blast and the accompanying number of civilian dead, I shudder too. Deaths are totaled up and then dismissed. And, by the way, when we get reports of bomb-blast deaths, both U.S. and Iraqi, we are not told how many lost limbs and maimed and shattered lives have resulted.
An accompanying story about the orphans showed an orphanage where, it was stated, these children live in situations that can only be described as breeding grounds for future terrorists. Whatever the reason and whomever is to blame, these children are unwanted and unadopted. They stay with other children who belong to their own religious factions and are encouraged to disdain those not in their group. When they are asked who caused the deaths of their parents, you can well imagine the culprit. How can we ignore this one "small" result of our meddling in another society's destiny?
Finally, the bad taste in my mouth whenever I witness the grief around the world may not even be ameliorated by Clinton's happy pronouncement. How will the medicine reach the right people? Even the reduced prices are not manageable for most of those desperate poor of the world, bringing me back to my first statistic.
I don't know where we start. Somewhere between unbridled optimism about helping humanity and the callous disregard for other people not only in the world but even in our own community, there may be a way to try to change these bitter statistics. Am I a foolish Candide to hope there may be some possibility for change, even in a world where the middle ground, as well as the middle class, seems unattainable?