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Americans must better understand poverty in the third world

Did you get that new iPhone? Did you save enough for that trip abroad? Did you get a good breakfast in you before that exam? Do you have a coat for the winter? Did you drink your two liters of water today? Did you boil it first? Did you go to sleep hungry last night? What about the night before?

Americans know little of true poverty. For half of the human population, a day's work is worth less than a latte from Starbucks. Poverty in the developing countries of the world means a constant struggle just to survive. Westerners, with our first world problems and petty squabbles, fail to realize our extraordinary quality of life in comparison to the rest of the world. That's not to say that we are in any way without our own economic dysfunctions. In fact, the United States is one of the least egalitarian countries in the world. As of 2014, the wealthiest 1 percent of Americans owned around 35 percent of the country's total net worth, whereas the bottom 40 percent owned less than 1 percent, with the vast-majority of them holding a negative balance of assets. Wealth inequality is among the great shames in our country's history, and one day Americans will look back on the systematic rigging of economic freedom that has taken place in our country since the 1950s in the same light in which we today view our history of racism and exploitation. But as our economy grows ever-more global, and our social circles expand across the world with the aid of technology, it will only become clearer with time that even the poor of America sit on a golden throne with the rest of the world at our feet.

We are a nation of immigrants. For those whose ancestors came here willingly, the impetus for doing so was the hope of a better life in the capitalist utopia that the United States has always made itself out to be. But rarely do we consider just what exactly our country's forefathers were fleeing. It may have been the pursuit of religious freedom for the early settlers of America, but for the Irish farmers, the Chinese railroad workers, the Polish and Russian Jews of the textile industries and countless others who followed, the impetus for making the crossing was simple; they would never have their needs met in their own country. So, they came. Bundled in overcrowded ships, they hoped their darkest days were behind them, and many of them were right. We are the descendants of the desperate men and women who set off for America in search of freedom. In search, not only of the freedom of belief, or of speech, or of expression, but of economic freedom, of freedom from the slavery that is poverty.

Poverty is a slavery to the human condition. So divorced are we from our own basic needs that we easily forget how quickly our lives can be taken simply by spending a night outside in the cold.

Learn to have a little empathy for those whose only wish is to work hard and earn their keep in a country which was built by people like them. Think critically about why exactly refugees from war-torn countries and poverty-stricken laborers living under corrupt and oppressive regimes might want to move to a place where the majority of the poor have smart phones. Do some research into your own family tree and then imagine a life in your family's homeland(s)... would you be willing to do whatever it took to forge a better life for yourself? Even if it meant leaving everything and everybody you'd ever known behind? Even if it meant coming to a country whose government didn't want you? Even if it was against the law?

Imagine a world where the destitute of Africa, Asia, the Americas and elsewhere weren't dedicating their entire lives to simply maintaining their own existence. Imagine what great minds might be found in the slums of Delhi, how many talented young men and women in the agricultural fields of Mali could be the next Fortune 500 CEO if given the opportunity. In a capitalist society, there is no word more-taboo than charity, but that's not what I'm advocating. A world where everyone's basic needs are met is a world where the best and brightest minds are able to thrive, and to propel the economy of their country into the future. Cutting the United States off from a steady flow of talent, regardless of its origin, is the surest way to see our economy fail in this time of such rapid change. Cream rises to the top; we can either give to the world now and let it repay us 10-fold later, or watch ourselves fade into obscurity.

Max Matson, columnist