Tuesday, February 5, 2013

A One Percent Problem

When my family and I were back in South Carolina visiting with my in-laws I had a chance to hear a curious new phase, “white people problem.” It was used in a conversation between my sister-in-law and her husband. They were lamenting the issues associated with living a bi-coastal life. Her job as an executive with a major mobile telecommunications company required a transfer from Charlotte to Seattle. Since she did not plan on staying longer than the terms of her initial contract they decided to keep their house in an upscale neighborhood and rent a house in the posh suburb of Bellevue (where Bill Gates and many of the Microsoft executives live.) They were trying to decide what to do with the BMW Z4 they had purchased a few years ago as a “play car” and had left in Charlotte since it wasn’t practical for the traveling they do when on the East Coast. After several minutes of back and forth banter about the need for trunk space to haul their stuff between Charlotte, Asheville, Due West, and Savannah they suddenly stopped looked at each other and said, “white people problem!”

It was their catchphrase to describe all the “problems” people who have all they need and most of what they want. “Oh no! The Beemer has a flat. Guess I’ll have to take the Lexus.” (White people problem.) “We’re not sure we can make it to the beach this year we’ve been invited to play in a celebrity Pro-Am tournament that week.” (White people problem.) “The sale on 70 inch HDTVs just ended I guess I’ll have to settle for a 60 inch.” (White people problem.) My wife and I even found ourselves getting into the spirit of the conversation when we were investigating various camps for our children and upon finding one our youngest son might enjoy noted that it started the week after we get back from the Caribbean in June. “Oh no Honey, I’m not sure that’s going to work. He’ll be tired after all that travel and vacation.” We paused a moment, looked at one another, and said, “White people problem.”

While this phrase does describe the pitfalls of life in the American middle class it is problematic in one very profound way. It is wildly inaccurate and is dreadfully politically incorrect. This reality was pointed out to me when in an online discussion about the events of a friend’s day she made the comment that she had to decide whether the family’s beloved pet rabbit really needed $1500 of surgery which she closed with “first world problem.” I replied that our family uses the term “white people problem,” at which time a third person joined in and called us both bigoted and insensitive. I then thought about the two phrases and realized that there are wealthy people of all races, and power and privilege is not the sole domain of those living in the first world. In fact, data supplied by the U.S. Census Bureau states that as of 2010 in the most first world of first world countries 22% of all children under 18 are poor. 12.4% of white non-Hispanics are poor. 38.2% of black people, 35% of Hispanics, and 13.6% of Asians all live in poverty.

In 2011 the median household income in the United States was $50,110 which according to the Global Rich List places the average American household among the top 0.98% of the richest people on Earth. If the world population clock is correct there is are approximately 7.1 billion people on Earth. I have a hunch that 7,029,000,000 people around the world would like to have the problems half of us in the United States face. We don’t have “white people problems” or “first world problems.” We have “1% problems.”

I do not know whether it is the statistics based rhetoric that is dominating all political economic discussion in the U.S. right now (the 2%, the 98%, the 47%) or the looming presence of the Lenten season, but when I realized I am a “one-percenter” I am grossly aware of my personal sinfulness. Jesus spent a lot more time talking about the sin associated with wealth than he did sexual ethics, marital status, or an inalienable right to bear arms. Paul said in his letter to the Romans (a group that were the one-percenters of their day) that all fall short of the glory of God. Maybe our collective obsession with “1% problems” means some of us fall shorter than others. Maybe it’s time to quit worrying about our “1% problems” and start worrying about the “99% problems.”

Soli Deo Gloria