As world leaders meet in Rio this week, they’ve promised to talk about how they can work together to eradicate poverty. Nothing could be more urgent.
Poverty is not a problem that will just go away. Over the past few decades, we’ve seen science and technology advance beyond anything our grandparents could ever have imagined. Medicine is getting better. Computers are getting faster. Phones are getting smarter. But one thing is getting worse — the number of our fellow humans who struggle each day just to meet their most basic needs.
By the last count, a staggering 1.4 billion people around the globe are living in extreme poverty. And while the U.S. may be a wealthy nation, we aren’t immune to poverty. Too many of our friends and neighbors are fighting just to get by. One in five American children live in homes that struggle to put food on the table — we’re talking about 16.2 million American kids [PDF] who can’t count on a meal every day. That’s not right.
And the shocking truth is that most of us in this country will live in poverty at some point during our lives. This is not somebody else’s problem.
We need our leaders to create long-term solutions that will wipe out hunger and poverty for good — here in the U.S., and across the globe.
And one of the best ways we can do that is by investing in the green economy. Investment in sectors like transportation, water infrastructure, energy efficiency, and renewable energy don’t just create jobs; they create pathways out of poverty.
The key is that jobs in the green economy tend to require less formal education than jobs in other sectors — but they pay better. That’s a powerful combination. It means that even if you grow up in a very poor home — even if you can’t afford the rising cost of a college degree — you can still get a job that pays enough to support a family. Wages for green jobs are 13 percent higher than median U.S. wages — but they tend to be held by folks with less education.
And when you go to that job each day, you won’t be worrying about breathing toxic fumes that threaten your health and your family’s security. In fact, one of the most important ways the green economy helps people living in poverty is simply by protecting their health.
The folks who are hit hardest by pollution are low-income families and people of color — because they live closest to our nation’s largest polluters, like coal-fired power plants. Health care for cancer, lung disease, and respiratory illness caused by air pollution costs our country more than $185 billion a year. And who bears the brunt of these illnesses? Low-income Americans and people of color.
So when I hear that governments around the world are spending $750 billion to $1 trillion a year subsidizing dirty fossil fuels, I have to wonder what in the world they are thinking. For a tiny fraction of that price we could end global hunger over the next 10 years.
It’s not just that it’s flat-out wrong to let our kids go hungry while we bankroll wealthy oil executives. It’s that it doesn’t make economic sense to pour money into an outdated, polluting industry when we could instead support innovative, promising businesses that offer good, safe jobs — businesses that don’t poison us.
That’s why I hope more than anything that our leaders will walk away from Rio with a shared commitment to stop propping up polluting industries — and instead to invest in businesses that that keep our air and water safe and create jobs we can be proud of. Businesses that help mothers and fathers put food on the table — whether they live in America or India.
Our priorities have become skewed. Our economy is broken. And our leaders in Rio have a chance to fix it right now. Watch our video:
Get Grist in your inbox