While the United States has suffered one of the deadliest COVID-19 outbreaks of any country in the world, the economic devastation of the pandemic has hit countries mired in extreme poverty hardest.
Global wealth inequality worsened during the pandemic, concentrating 76% of wealth in the hands of the richest 10% and reserving only 2% of wealth for the bottom half of earners, according to a report published by the World Inequality Lab in december.
Coping costs, or the additional financial burden that results from the inability to meet basic needs, is a key driver of extreme poverty. In fact, the world’s poor often pay more for clean water than the middle class, said actor Matt Damon, co-founder of a global water access philanthropy called Water.org.
When Damon and Gary White, the other co-founder of Water.org, realized that low-income people around the world were paying relatively high costs for water, they were prompted to focus on microfinance, whereby a beneficiary receives a small loan to access clean drinking water, repays the loans, and the nonprofit organization lends the money to another recipient.
“These people were already paying for water,” he said. “In many cases, 10 to 15 times what the middle class or people in luxury hotels were paying.”
“They just didn’t have any savings, they couldn’t afford the $300 for a water hookup,” added Damon, who co-authored with White a new book called “The Value of Water.” “The utility company was funneling water right under their feet and they couldn’t access it.”
“Instead they have had to overpay for poor quality water, or take the time to go to a standard community tap or fetch water elsewhere, and take time away from work or, in the case of younger girls, away from school,” she said.
Worldwide, at least 2 billion people use a drinking water source contaminated with feces, the World Health Organization (WHO) said. . Additionally, more than 2 billion people live in water-scarce countries and are at risk of losing access to clean water, the WHO found.
In cities around the world, residents of the poorest neighborhoods pay up to 10 to 20 times more for water than their counterparts in wealthy areas, according to a 2019 report by advocacy group Water Aid.
Additional costs mount as the world’s poor pay hospital bills for illnesses caused by dirty water and high interest rates on money borrowed by local loan sharks, Damon and White say in their book.
“It is expensive to be poor,” they wrote.
Water.org has reached 33 million people since its founding in 2009 and 6.6 million people last year, according to the organization’s website.
Because Water.org’s small loan allows borrowers to reduce water costs, recipients reliably repay loans, Damon said.
“They pay more than 99%,” he said. “I think your hypothesis has been proven.”
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