So you think you live in a First World country?
First World problems
A sight unworthy to behold
Way back in the ‘80’s, my wife and I visited the US as tourists—she for the first time, me for the second. After spending an afternoon in one of the Smithsonian museums in Washington DC, we slumped down tired and exhausted on a bench in a park along the National Mall. It was then that we witnessed an astonishing sight of a man rummaging through a large public trashcan, retrieving some half-eaten food, which he then devoured! So why did we find it “astonishing”? Was it because we were born and brought up in a Third World country (India) and were living in another Third World country in Africa, and were not prepared for such a sight in a First World country? Or were we astonished because—
- in the Third World, poor people rummaged through garbage for valuables or recyclables, not edible food. Any form of food gets consumed long before it reaches the garbage heap!
- this was happening in the capital of the world’s richest country, barely half a mile from the Capitol and the White House,
- it was a white man scrounging for food in a garbage bin—something very difficult to fathom for a person like me, who has lived in countries that for long were ruled by whites.
First World vs. Third World
A loose definition of a First World country would be one where the citizens have the means or are provided safety nets by the Government, to take care of their requirements of food, clothing, shelter, education and healthcare. In a Third World country, the citizens, by and large, have to fend for themselves, with little, if any, assistance from their Governments that themselves have limited resources. As one who has spent many years in third world countries and lived four years in West Germany, I have a fairly good perspective of life in these different “worlds”. Life in West Germany during the mid-‘60s was one of general prosperity, with virtually no visible signs of poverty. And when I first traveled to the US in 1973 on business, I had the privilege of being treated to what one would consider to be a truly First World experience—dining in expensive restaurants and country clubs and a ride in a corporate jet, no less!
But during my second visit in the ‘80’s, my experience in DC, described above, served as an eye opener. Over the years, I’ve been made wiser about the somewhat socialistic safety nets provided by mainly European countries, as against the social entitlement programs put in place in this country.
The price of social entitlements
Now that I’ve settled here in the US, I’m aware of the intense debate regarding the burden of such entitlements programs. This country prides itself on the entrepreneurial spirit of its people and the opportunities that this environment provides. The spirit of free enterprise dominates our life, with emphasis on market capitalism—even if it is too raw, as critics have alleged. Many amongst us frown upon the safety nets that European countries provide and demand that our social entitlement programs be drastically reduced.
Finding long-term solutions
No matter how well intended any social entitlement program is when it is set up, inefficiencies and misuse gradually creep in over the years, and financing such programs can become a huge burden. The same can be said about the popular Social Security and Medicare/Medicaid programs that threaten to become unsustainable in the long run. But if we pride ourselves as a First World nation, the least one would expect is that all citizens are in a position to provide themselves with the basic necessities. Not everyone might have seen people rummaging through trash for food—some may not even notice. But with the gridlock that Washington is famous for, it would be unfortunate if such sights were to become more common rather than rare.