Should Effective Altruists Focus More on American Poverty?

The conventional wisdom among Effective Altruists is that financially secure Americans should support desperately poor people abroad before trying to help poor Americans. Because the relative poor of the United States are richer than the absolute poor of the Global South, the reasoning goes, donations to the latter go further than donations to the former do. By way of illustration: a $3,500 donation to the Against Malaria Foundation is likely to make a literal life-or-death difference to a poor child overseas, whereas an equivalent donation to a U.S.-focused charity, even in the age of coronavirus, is unlikely to save an American child who would otherwise die. 

It is commendable that American advocates of the global poor are sufficiently dispassionate to frame moral matters in such universalistic terms. As various opponents of national borders have pointed out, one’s birthplace is as random as one’s skin color, meaning that any special concern that we have for our country’s poor (and our simultaneous undervaluation of the needs of poor foreigners) may be no more morally defensible than racists’ disparate levels of concern for impoverished members of different racial groups. But that does not quite settle the matter. Even if EAs are right to view national differences as prima facie moral irrelevancies, the psychological burdens of relative poverty, as well as the realities of American political and social life, may give American EAs good reasons to channel some of their charitable energies towards the American poor. 

In the first place, the scourge of suicide among low-income Americans (and lower rates of suicide among richer Americans) should make us question EAs’ common assumption that several thousand dollars, proffered in the spirit of intranational camaraderie, cannot reliably and significantly extend the life of a needy American. Notwithstanding the fact that they have comforts unavailable to poor people in the Global South, many poor Americans still fall prey to self-destructive despair (especially when they live close to wealthier people). Insofar as that despair is born of a sense of worthlessness and exclusion, economic support may allay their pain by reminding the poor that their projects and ailments matter to others. 

Adherents to the traditional ideas of Effective Altruism may rush to point out that the global poor, because of their absolute poverty, often struggle with suicidal ideation as well. According to this counter, the psychological suffering of the global poor matches that of the suicidal American poor, but the global poor experience the additional suffering of, say, extreme food insecurity. Thus, if we must choose between lending a hand to a suicidal American in relative poverty and lifting up a suicidal foreigner in absolute poverty, we should assist the latter, seeing as that assistance can alleviate psychological as well as physical suffering (whereas our donation to an American can relieve psychological suffering alone). 

It is unclear, however, that suffering works in the way that this response suggests. If two people—one a hungry person overseas, another a reasonably well-fed but unemployed Midwesterner—are both so depressed as to seriously contemplate suicide, is it really obvious that the non-American is suffering more than the American is? It seems just as plausible that they have both reached the “limit” of possible suffering—that the pains of the Midwesterner, because of the psychological toll of relative poverty, are indeed as intense as those of the person abroad. 

Even if we conclude, alternatively, that the most despondent among the global poor suffer more than the most despondent poor Americans do, there is yet another reason—grounded in American political dynamics—for American EAs to focus some of their attention on American poverty. Namely, the prevalence of American nationalist sentiments probably means that American campaigns for domestic poverty relief can make greater inroads than our domestic campaigns against global poverty can.

The unfortunate reality is that, at present, Americans care more about American affairs than they do about foreign affairs. The truth of this point may be self-evident; if not, we can review some of the survey data on the matter. As of last month, not even 1 percent of Americans felt that foreign aid—some of which seems to save lives—is the most important issue with which our country is currently wrestling. Nearly everyone surveyed instead identified some American issue (including coronavirus, almost certainly because of its effect on Americans) as the most pressing. 

In the foreseeable future, this American preference for addressing American problems may render any call for a full-fledged global war on poverty a non-starter. By contrast, calls to help cash-strapped Americans—through political changes or private donations—may very well receive a sympathetic hearing from well-off Americans with an altruistic impulse. So even if the domestic poor need the money less than impoverished foreigners do, the fact that a campaign against domestic poverty can garner more support (in the United States) may mean, ultimately, that EAs can do more good by advocating for the American poor than by campaigning against global poverty. 

To be clear, none of this is meant to condemn American EAs’ efforts to eliminate privation abroad. In a country rife with apathy to the struggles of the foreign poor, such efforts are highly laudable. If successful, this note has merely complicated the suggestion that our charitable expenditures do more good overseas than they do at home. It has also suggested that any thoroughgoing EA, in planning her anti-poverty campaigning, should account for the strong possibility that domestic poverty is more likely than global poverty to ignite Americans’ humanitarian sentiments. That this is the case now, of course, does not mean that we must resign ourselves to the dictates of nationalism forever. We can and should hope that, as we push them to take greater cognizance of the poor in our own society, Americans will come to resist an international economic arrangement in which millions of non-Americans are immiserated as well.

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Posted in Distributive Justice
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