The Gulf Between Rich and Poor

REGARDLESS of the terminology used to describe them, highly developed, industrial, and economically advanced nations boast high living standards, whereas those with less industry, which are thus less developed economically, make do with lower standards. It is almost as though they belong to two different worlds.

Of course, even within one nation, these two worlds may exist. Think of the comparatively affluent countries mentioned in the previous article. These have both their rich and their poor. In the United States, for example, about 30 percent of the nation’s total income goes into the pockets of the upper 10 percent of households. At the same time, the lower 20 percent of households must make do with just 5 percent of the total income. This situation or one similar to it may exist in the country where you live, especially if the middle  class there is small. But even governments in countries with a comparatively large middle class have until now been unable to bridge completely the economic gap between those who have and those who have not.

Neither World Is Ideal

Neither world can rightfully lay claim to perfection. Think of the obvious disadvantages of those living in poorer countries. Health care is seriously limited. Whereas the 9 richest countries mentioned in the box on this page boast 1 physician for every 242 to 539 inhabitants, the 18 poorest countries fall far behind, with just 1 physician for every 3,707 to 49,118 of their citizens. So, understandably, the life expectancy of the more affluent countries is 73 years or above, whereas in more than half of the poorest, life expectancy is well below 50 years.

 In poor countries the possibilities for education also lag far behind, often dooming children to a life of poverty. This lack is reflected in literacy rates. Whereas 7 of the 9 richest countries have literacy rates of 100 percent (the other 2 have rates of 96 and 97 percent), the 18 poorest countries have literacy rates ranging between a high of 81 percent and a low of 16 percent, with 10 of them under 50 percent.

But the inhabitants of wealthy nations also have certain disadvantages. Whereas those in poor countries may suffer from a lack of food, those living in abundance are increasingly eating themselves to death. The book Food Fight claims that “overconsumption has replaced malnutrition as the world’s top food problem.” And the magazine The Atlantic Monthly states: “Some nine million Americans are now ‘morbidly obese,’ meaning roughly a hundred pounds [45 kg] or more overweight, and weight-related conditions cause about 300,000 premature deaths a year in this country.” The same article suggests that “obesity may soon surpass both hunger and infectious disease as the world’s most pressing public-health problem.” *

True, citizens of wealthy countries have a higher standard of living, but at the same time, they may attach more meaning to possessions than to relationships, thus placing too much emphasis on having and too little on being. They then tend to measure a person’s importance and worth according to his job, salary, or possessions, rather than his knowledge, wisdom, abilities, or positive characteristics.

Stressing that a simple life is what makes for happiness, the title of an article in the German weekly newsmagazine Focus asked: “What About a Little Less?” The article said: “Most citizens of the Western world are no happier now than they were decades ago, despite the dramatic upsurge in prosperity. . . . Anyone who sets his whole heart on objects is more likely to end up unhappy.”

Achieving Perfect Balance

Yes, facts prove that both worlds, rich and poor, although having certain positive aspects, also have their downsides. Whereas the world of the poor may be overly simple, the world of the rich can be overly complex. How beneficial it would be if these two worlds could learn from each other! But is it realistic to think that such a perfect balance can ever be achieved?

From a human standpoint, you may feel that this goal, although desirable, is simply beyond human ability to accomplish. And history backs you up in thinking so. Still, the situation is far from hopeless. You may have overlooked the most logical solution to the problem. What could that be?


[Blurb on page 6]

“Obesity may soon surpass both hunger and infectious disease as the world’s most pressing public-health problem.”​—The Atlantic Monthly

[Graph on page 5]

(For fully formatted text, see publication)

Countries are arranged alphabetically

Nine Richest Countries

Male Life Expectancy (years) Literacy (%)


75.1 100


76.4 96.6


74.9 100


78.4 100


78.4 100


74.9 100


76.5 100


77.7 100

United States

74.4 95.5

Eighteen Poorest Countries

Male Life Expectancy (years) Literacy (%)


50.4 37.5

Burkina Faso

43 23


42.5 48.1


47 53.6

Congo, Rep. Of

49 80.7


47.3 38.7


45.1 36.8


53.8 80.2


37.6 60.3


44.7 40.3


38.9 43.8


42.3 15.7


50.9 64.1


45.3 67

Sierra Leone

40.3 36.3


43.3 75.2


59.2 46.4


35.3 78

[Credit Line]

Source: 2005 Britannica Book of the Year.

[Picture Credit Line on page 4]

© Mark Henley/Panos Pictures