American Exceptionalism

Ed Raymond

American Progress, John Gast 1872. Library of Congress
American Progress, John Gast 1872. Library of Congress

The Long Road From Plymouth Rock To Fantasyland

Did a liberal or conservative make this statement?
“I believe that in a modern, moral, and wealthy society, no person in America should be too poor to live. So what that means is health care is a human right. It means that every child, no matter where you are born, should have access to a college or trade school education if they so choose it. And, you know, I think that no person should be homeless if we can have public structures and public policies to allow for people to have homes and food and lead a dignified life in the United States.”

Who made this statement, a Democrat or Republican?
“Something’s wrong when a politician wakes up in the morning and says: ‘I’m gonna work today to deny health care. I’m gonna work today to deny health care to children. I’m gonna work today to keep people with preexisting conditions from having access. I’m gonna work today to suppress the vote. Something is wrong, much deeper than partisanship. Part of the problem for the last 40 years, we basically eradicated the word ‘poverty’ from political discourse while poverty is growing.”

The first statement was made by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a 28-year-old Democratic candidate for the U.S. House of Representatives. Could today’s conservative Republicans also endorse her statement? The second statement was made by Episcopal Bishop William Barber, a leader of protests against the North Carolina Republican Party who has assumed direction of national protests concerning poverty and minority voting rights. He is the power behind the formation of the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival.

He reminds us of the poverty in the United States although President Trump’s Council of Economic Advisers declared on July 12 that our very long 50-year war on poverty “is largely over and is a success.”

These Facts About Poverty In The World’s Richest Country Are Not “Fake” News

  Let’s start with our military’s 20 million veterans, over one million of them women. Over 11 million are over 65 and eligible for Medicare and VA benefits. But 9 million have to depend upon the VA and other federal programs. We average 20 veteran suicides a day. That’s a rate substantially higher than non-veterans. Out of the 20 million vets we have 4.9 million with service-connected disabilities. At the present time we have 318,000 vets waiting for decisions for disability benefits, with an average wait of 935 days for appeals. In 2017 over 40,000 vets were homeless on any given night, with 25,000 staying in shelters. The other 15,000 were staying in places judged to be unfit for human habitation. Over 370,000 vets between the ages 22-34 are unemployed. The Census Bureau reports that 1,465,807 vets live under the official poverty line established by the federal government. Over 1.5 million vets receive food stamps because of low-income jobs.

So the Trump plutocrats feel poverty n the U.S. “is largely over.”  Tell that to the 43.1 million Americans classified as poor. Tell it to the 140 million Americans who lack the money to pay for housing, childcare, healthcare, food, transportation, and a cellphone without going into debt. If you make less than $12,240 in your one-person household you are considered poor. If you live in a two-person household and make less than $16,460 you are considered poor. There is a schedule for households all the way up to a family of eight. At that level you are poor if you make less than $42,380. We know what it takes because we had a family of nine. These families cannot save for rainy days either. A full third of Americans have no savings at all and another third have less than $1,000. They find it hard to cover the costs of food, and it is getting more difficult. In 2007 11% of families, or 36 million, couldn’t cover the cost of food. In 2014 this number increased to 14% or 48 million. This upward trend continues to 2018. This is “success” in meeting poverty?

Poverty In The World’s Richest Nation—Where Three Men Have Wealth Equal To 160 Million At The Bottom Of The Human Food Chain

Philip Alston is the United Nations expert on poverty and human rights. He and his army of researchers, who have examined almost all the nations in the world, recently spent some time in the United States studying our inequality as well as our extreme poverty. Poverty is worse in the U.S. than in most developed countries. Here are a just a few highlights from his report:

(1) A “shockingly” high number of children in the U.S., over 13.3 million,  (32.6% of all people living in poverty), are living in poverty,

(2) Child poverty rates are highest in the southern states, all Republican, with Mississippi at 30% and Louisiana at 29%,

(3) Described cases of hookworm caused by open sewers and lack of sanitary septic systems, particularly in Alabama,
(4) Examined the deadly situations of Los Angeles Skid Row, the present home of 55,000 poor people, many of them veterans,

(5) One out of seven over 65 live in poverty, and

(6) Over 30% of the families in southern states are food insecure. In other words, they are so poor they cannot provide three adequate meals per day.
Another major report on poverty by the Pew Research Center indicates that poverty has increased in suburban counties faster than in rural counties. The number of suburban residents living in high poverty areas has tripled since 1990, primarily because earnings have stayed flat for the last forty years in most suburbs. Good paying jobs that don’t require advanced training beyond high school are disappearing from the suburbs at an ever-increasing rate.

How Does The U.S. Compare With Other Developed Countries?

   The Nordic countries of Sweden, Norway, Denmark, and Finland always lead the world in “happiness” and “equality” polls. In all those polls we have been no higher than 8th—and usually we are about 15th. Here’s why.  Over 20% of U.S. children living in families with incomes below 50% of the national median income live in poverty. There are several estimates of what the median income level is, but they are generally in the area of $52,000. The four Nordic countries named range from 3.6% to 6.7% for children living in poverty. When we include two-parent families, we have a 12.6% poverty rate while Finland has a 2.2% rate. It should be shocking.

Here’s another factor. The Nordic countries have huge middle classes compared to our shrinking middle. Over 65% of Nordic children live in families that have incomes that are 150% to 300% above the poverty line and are 75% to 150% above the median income of the country. Our lower class is now much larger than our middle class. If we are ever going to fix this unequal distribution of money and assets, we must raise taxes instead of cutting them. To reduce our extremely heavy poverty loads, we must support both free and subsidized child care, free health care, and paid parental leaves for the raising of children. We are the only major developed country without paid parental leave.

Some Reasons Why Our “Exceptionalism” Has Created Our“Fantasyland”

New Yorker columnist Kurt Anderson, often with good humor, outlines why the U.S. became the country of Daniel Boone, John D. Rockefeller, Elvis Presley, Jeff Bezos, Mark Twain, many serial killers, Andrew Carnegie, and P.T. Brarnum. In his book “Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire: A 500-Year History”, he relates how this country was really founded by religious fanatics called Pilgrims, who thought they were God’s chosen people. They left England to found a theocratic state in the wilderness that would carry them through to the end of the world. Anderson claims that the fanaticism demonstrated by the Pilgrims established the idea that new religions would set us apart from all other areas of the world. He’s right. He uses a few examples: “Mormonism, Pentecostalism, and assorted  sects whipped up by charismatics speaking in tongues and by evangelists preaching the imminent end of the world as signaled by the omnipresence of Satan.” Having been a Roman Catholic and a Lutheran so far, I get his idea.

   Anderson writes that all of the following beliefs have been revealed in American surveys:

(1) Two-thirds of Americans believe angels and demons are active in the world,

(2) Half proclaim Heaven exists,

(3) Heaven is ruled by a personal God—or some kind of guy,

(4) More than a third believe that global warming is no big deal but that it is a hoax perpetrated by a conspiracy of scientists, government, and journalists,

(5) A quarter believe vaccines cause autism and that Donald Trump won the popular vote,

(6) A quarter believe Obama was (or is!) the Antichrist, and

(7) A quarter believe in witches. He left out my favorite. Eight percent believe we never landed men on the moon. We have conspiracy theorists that claim the murder of 20 first graders and six adult school people never took place at Sandy Hook. It was staged by actors and the government! Some say the same thing happened at the Las Vegas massacre. What a reality show put on by the government!    Anderson says nutty Americans have led us from Plymouth Rock to our present Fantasyland. We have to remember that P.T. Barnum’s first human display in 1865 was Joice Heth, a black woman who pretended to have been George Washington’s nursemaid. She would have been 161 years old—but many believed at the time she took care of George. No wonder we are exceptional!

Our “Shining City On A Hill” Is Actually Hiding A Poor Slum

When a politician talks about American exceptionalism, he is really using alternative facts and spreading fake news. We are exceptional in a number of things, most of them negative when compared to other countries. Japanese and Swiss citizens live almost six years longer than Americans do.  The citizens of France, Italy, Spain, Canada, Sweden, and Australia live five years longer than we do. The citizens of Norway, Portugal, Belgium, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, Germany, Austria, Malta, and the Netherlands live almost three years longer than Americans. Citizens of most Latin American countries such as Mexico and Costa Rica live two years longer than we do. Why? Because we don’t have universal health care. Over 40 million Americans have no life insurance, yet we spend twice as much per capita as any of the countries listed as having longer life spans. We are exceptionally stupid in structuring an effective health care system. We have the best medical care in the world for anyone making $500,000 a year or more—and the worst care in the developed world for anyone making less than median salary. Great Britain has had universal health care for 63 years, covers everybody, and spends half what we spend per capita.

We are so far behind other developed countries in many areas it’s embarrassing to bring them up: health care for all, infrastructure, life expectancy, mass transit, high speed railroads, environmental regulations, just to name a few. For being the richest nation in the world, we are exceptionally poor in taking care of all of our own citizens.