One interesting outcome of the 2016 Presidential elections, was a revelation (for Democrats at least) and a confirmation for many (like me) that there are vast portions of the United States that are backward. The so-called fly over states.
Most of America’s GDP, and therefore wealth is generated on the East and West coast. Unfortunately, these wealthy elites and political donors do not fundamentally understand the disparities that exist in the United States. Neither, by the way, do foreign elites who rarely travel to America’s heartlands! Although Hillary won the popular vote, and carried major states like California and New York, Trump’s campaign better understood, and campaigned in these fly-over states.
The truth is, that although the U.S. is one of the richest societies in history, it still lags other developed nations in many important indicators of human development especially in America’s heartland. Key factors like how well educated our children are, how we treat our prisoners, how we take care of the sick and virtually every metric related to Healthcare, Employment data, per capita incomes etc. all point to vast disparities in America. In some instances, the U.S.’s performance is downright abysmal, far below foreign countries that Americans snidely look-down-upon us as a “third world” nation. This is further exacerbated by the what appears (at least from outside the U.S.), a voter base that is deeply, badly uneducated, misinformed and easily swayed – much like “third world” nations. For all of America’s economic power, it seems that America is only superficially a first world country, but maintains a third world core.
Here are some of the most egregious examples that illustrate my point:
- Regional GDP’s
Taking published data on a state by state basis, we find something like 10 states (Florida, Montana, Kentucky, Maine, Arizona, Alabama, South Carolina, Arkansas, West Virginia, Idaho, and Mississippi). with per capita GDP’s less than $40,000. A hand full of these states are below $35,000. This is roughly 1/5th of the population of the U.S. (almost 60 Million Americans).
Put into a global context this is roughly in line with the GDP or Malta, Cyprus (among the poorest European states) or Equatorial Guinea in Africa. Mississippi is on par with Trinidad and Tobago in the Caribbean. This is nothing to write home about, or to be proud of. Interestingly, most of these poor states are bell weather Republican party dominated states with very strong religious traditions.
However, this analysis masks another very important fact. Even in more prosperous states, there are large counties that have even lower per capita GDP’s than the data provided more generally for states. There are over 100 counties in the US with per capita GDP’s LOWER than the state of Mississippi. And a handful of counties with per capita GDP’s at or below $20,000 – that’s lower than Iran, Mexico, and Botswana to name a few comparable countries. Interestingly the poorest county in the U.S. is in the ‘prosperous’ state of Georgia: with a Per Capita GDP of $16,000 (Wheeler County). Poorer than Iraq or China!
The easier narrative to keep in mind is that there are roughly 80 million Americans who live below the ‘poverty’ line. Also, interesting, there is an under layer of illegal immigrants (roughly 12 million ‘undocumented’ immigrants according to official government data), who originate from many ‘third world’ (Central American nations) like Guatemala, El Salvador, Haiti and Jamaica (just to name a few), who live in hidden conclaves in the U.S. (in often rural settings). It would not be an exaggeration to estimate that roughly 100 million Americans (or approximately one-third of the population) live in what can only be considered Third World (economic) conditions.
- Criminal Justice
We all know the U.S. criminal justice system is flawed, but few are likely aware of just how bad it is compared to the rest of the world. The International Center for Prison Studies estimates that America imprisons 716 people per 100,000 citizens (of any age). That’s significantly worse than Russia (484 prisoners per 100,000 citizens), China (121) and Iran (284). The only country that incarcerates a higher percentage of its population than we do is North Korea. The U.S. is also the only developed country that executes prisoners – and our death penalty has a serious race problem: 42 percent of those on death row are black, compared to less than 15 percent of the overall population.
Over two and a half million American children have a parent behind bars. A whopping 60 percent of those incarcerated in U.S. prisons are non-violent offenders, many of them in prison for drug charges (overwhelmingly African-Americans). Even while overall crime rates have fallen, the population behind bars has climbed. As of 2011, an estimated 217,000 American prisoners were raped each year – that’s 600 new victims every day, a truly horrifying number. In 2010, the Department of Justice released a report about abuse in juvenile detention centers. The report found that 12.1 percent of all youth held in juvenile detention reported sexual violence; youth held for between seven and 12 months had a victimization rate of 14.2 percent.
- Gun Violence
The U.S. leads the developed world in firearm-related murders, and the difference isn’t a slight gap – more like a chasm. According to United Nations data, the U.S. has 20 times more murders than the developed world average. Our murder rate also dwarfs many developing nations, like Iraq, which has a murder rate less than half ours. More than half of the deadliest mass shootings documented in the past 50 years around the world occurred in the United States, and 73 percent of the killers in the U.S. obtained their weapons legally. Another study finds that the U.S. has one of the highest proportion of suicides committed with a gun. Gun violence varies across the U.S., but some cities like New Orleans and Detroit rival the most violent Latin American countries, where gun violence is highest in the world.
A study last year found that in many American counties, especially in the deep South, life expectancy is lower than in Algeria, Nicaragua or Bangladesh. The U.S. is the only developed country that does not guarantee health care to its citizens; even after the Affordable Care Act, millions of poor Americans will remain uninsured because governors, mainly Republicans, have refused to expand Medicaid, which provides health insurance for low-income Americans. Although the federal government will pay for the expansion, many governors cited cost, even though the expansion would save money. America is unique among developed countries in that tens of thousands of poor Americans die because they lack health insurance, even while we spend more than twice as much of our GDP on healthcare than the average for the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), a collection of rich world countries. The U.S. has an infant mortality rate that dwarfs comparable nations, as well as the highest teenage-pregnancy rate in the developed world, largely because of the politically-motivated unavailability of contraception in many areas.
The U.S. is among only three nations in the world that does not guarantee paid maternal leave (the other two are Papua New Guinea and Swaziland). This means many poor American mothers must choose between raising their children and keeping their jobs. The U.S. education system is plagued with structural racial biases, like the fact that schools are funded at the local, rather than national level. That means that schools attended by poor black people get far less funding than the schools attended by wealthier students. The Department of Education has confirmed that schools with high concentrations of poor students have lower levels of funding. It’s no wonder America has one of the highest achievement gaps between high income and low-income students, as measured by the OECD. Schools today are more racially segregated than they were in the 1970s. Our higher education system is unique among developed nations in that is funded almost entirely privately, by debt. Students in the average OECD country can expect about 70 percent of their college tuition to be publicly funded; in the United States, only about 40 percent of the cost of education is publicly-funded. That’s one reason the U.S. has the highest tuition costs of any OECD country.
By almost every measure, the U.S. tops out OECD countries in terms of income inequality, largely because America has the stingiest welfare state of any developed country. This inequality has deep and profound effects on American society. For instance, although the U.S. justifies its rampant inequality on the premise of upward mobility, many parts of the United States have abysmal levels of social mobility, where children born in the poorest quintile have a less than 3 percent chance of reaching the top quintile. Inequality harms our democracy, because the wealthy exert an outsized political influence. Sheldon Adelson, for instance, spent more to influence the 2012 election than the residents of 12 states combined. Inequality also tears at the social fabric, with a large body of research showing that inequality correlates with low levels of social trust. In their book The Spirit Level, Richard Pickett and Kate Wilkinson show that a wide variety of social indicators, including health and well-being are intimately tied to inequality.
The United States infrastructure is slowly crumbling apart and is in desperate need for repair. One study estimates that our infrastructure system needs a $3.6 trillion investment over the next six years. In New York City, the development of Second Avenue subway line was first delayed by the outbreak of World War II; it’s still not finished. In South Dakota, Alaska and Pennsylvania, water is still transported via century-old wooden pipes. Some 45 percent of Americans lack access to public transit. Large portions of U.S. wastewater capacity are more than half a century old and in Detroit, some of the sewer lines date back to the mid-19th century. One in nine U.S. bridges (or 66,405 bridges) are considered “structurally deficient,” according to the National Bridge Inventory. All of this means that the U.S. has fallen rapidly in international rankings of infrastructure.
America is a great country, and it does many things well. But it has vast blind spots. The fact that nearly 6 million Americans, or 2.5 percent of the voting-age population, cannot vote because they have a felony on record means that politicians can lock up more and more citizens without fear of losing their seats. Our ideas of meritocracy and upward mobility blind us to the realities of class and inequality. Our healthcare system provides good care to some, but it comes at a cost – millions of people without health insurance.
Ironically, these same “fly-over” states are the ones who voted overwhelmingly for Trump, who’s policies are more regressive and destructive to their interests than any previous US administration. A U.N. report published this past week highlights these very same observations as follows:
“As one of the world’s wealthiest societies, the US is what Alston calls a “land of stark contrasts”. It is home to one in four of the world’s 2,208 billionaires.
At the other end of the spectrum, 40 million Americans live in poverty. More than five million eke out an existence amid the kind of absolute deprivation normally associated with the developing world.
The symptoms of such glaring inequality include:
Americans now live shorter and sicker lives than citizens of other rich democracies;
Tropical diseases that flourish in conditions of poverty are on the rise;
The US incarceration rate remains the highest in the world;
Voter registration levels are among the lowest in industrialized nations – 64% of the voting-age population, compared with 91% in Canada and the UK and 99% in Japan.
Against that backdrop, the UN rapporteur identified a slew of what he calls “aggressively regressive” policies coming out of the Trump administration that are sending the country “full steam ahead” towards greater inequality. In addition to the tax breaks, there are new work requirements for welfare recipients, cuts of up to a third in the food stamp program, a recent proposal from housing secretary Ben Carson to triple the base rent for federally subsidized housing, and a burning of government regulations that offered protections to middle-class and poor families.
This is an across the board attack on those who are living on the poverty line or below it. If we don’t critically examine these flaws, how can America ever hope to make progress as a society?