The “American dream” is touted as every person’s nirvana. The reality is different and harsh.
Watching American television or seeing Hollywood movies, one gets the impression that America is a land of opportunities. Milk and honey flow everywhere and dollars grow on trees. That is why we are constantly reminded about why everyone wants to come and live in America.
What is the truth behind such assertions? True, the US has more billionaires than any other country in the world; it also has the highest GDP (gross domestic product) and the largest military budget at $654 billion annually, with the largest arsenal of nuclear weapons to boot. Do a large number of billionaires and the highest GDP automatically translate into happiness and prosperity for all?
Here are some other statistics that we need to keep in mind. The US has more than 50 million people living in absolute poverty; the vast majority are African Americans. More than 40 million American children — again the vast majority African American — do not have access to healthcare. Many go to bed hungry. The US also has the largest number of incarcerated people in the world at 2.3 million and growing.
Another revealing statistic peculiar to America is that people are heavily armed and have the largest number of guns in the world. Where there are guns, there are obviously deaths coupled with a mindset to shoot first and worry about the consequences later. Not surprisingly, according to data compiled by the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Eve Bower of CNN (October 3, 2016) found some startling statistics. Between 2001 and 2014 a staggering number of 440,095 people died by firearms on US soil during this period. These statistics are well documented even if not widely known or reported.
Now a new revelation has come to light: increasing numbers of white Americans are committing suicide because of despair. This is the result of falling incomes that has been underway for decades. During the US presidential campaign, Donald Trump alleged that American corporations were shipping manufacturing jobs abroad resulting in workers at home suffering income loss.
This allegation is only partly true. American workers, especially those without college degrees, have suffered income loss but not because manufacturing jobs have gone overseas. The real reason is automation and technological changes. As machines and robots take over jobs previously performed by humans, the latter are made redundant. The US also spends the least amount of money among industrialized countries on training workers. Raw capitalism is at work: you are on your own in this dog-eat-dog world of capitalism. While the rich are accumulating increasing amounts of wealth, the poor are getting poorer.
This was confirmed, yet again in Oxfam’s report released on January 18, 2017 on the eve of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. Titled “An Economy for the 1%,” the Oxfam report showed that the wealth of the poorest half of the world’s population had fallen by a trillion dollars since 2010, while that of the richest 62 people had increased by more than half a trillion dollars ($542 billion) to $1.76 trillion according to 2015 figures. The few rich men — yes they are mostly men — own as much wealth as bottom half of the world’s population of 3.6 billion people. In 2010, the wealth of the 388 richest people equaled that of the bottom half.
The Oxfam report dealt with the global situation even if most of the richest men are in the US. There have been recent reports of falling incomes and their impact on people’s health and mortality in the US. In the 20-year period to 1988, the mortality rate of middle-age white Americans fell by an average of 2% a year. However, between 1999 and 2013, their deaths rose. Two researchers, Anne Case and Angus Deaton, reported these findings in 2015 and updated them in mid-March 2017 to include findings for the years 2014 and 2015 in a report dubbed “deaths of despair.” The researchers found that neither geography nor the fact whether people lived in rural or urban areas had any effect on the degree of despair. Easy availability of drugs and alcohol contributed to rising rates of suicide among white Americans without college degrees.
The authors discovered another interesting phenomenon. Death rates among the historically disadvantaged, blacks and Hispanics, were not affected by job losses. Among these groups, despair did not set in as easily as among whites. Without saying so, the reason might be the low level of expectation among blacks and Hispanics and their being used to facing racism and discrimination. Whites on the other hand, took things for granted. The jobs were theirs even if they did not have the requisite skills. Others — blacks and Hispanics — must wait. Automation and technological changes have put paid to such smugness but there are other factors also at work.
The authors suspect as much. Over the last several decades, the West has also undergone drastic changes in social values. Marriage is virtually a thing of the past; people live in common law relationships. Men — and women — have multiple partners. The notion of single-motherhood has become fashionable with disastrous consequences for women and children. The destruction of social networks provided by a stable family structure may be seen as “liberating” some but has left others, mostly children, feeling helpless and in despair.
The impact of the diminishing two-parent family has already become apparent among children. More than 73% of the US prison population comprises men who were raised as children in a single parent family, often a mother. The latest studies find that even grown men cannot cope with the pressures of life resulting from lack of social support and networking that a stable family provides. In the US, this is compounded by lack of adequate government support for unemployed workers as well as lack of medical facilities that act as safety nets.
This point is further corroborated by the fact that in Europe where governments provide some degree of income support to unemployed workers, overall middle-age mortality continued to fall at the same 2% rate. By 2013 middle-aged white Americans were dying at twice the rate of similarly aged Swedes of all races. Similar findings were reported from Germany, France, and Britain as well as Canada.
Government support for unemployed workers is not a handout, as often projected by those who rationalize accumulation as opposed to circulation of wealth. It is one of the ways to prevent people from falling into despair. Poor health condition of people costs the economy much more than giving them the barest minimum to survive. Further, re-training in the face of rapidly changing technological advances is another way to prevent suicide deaths.
And finally religion, or lack thereof among people has resulted in such disastrous consequences. Christianity in particular offers little hope in the face of economic woes. The vacuous notion that someone will redeem them once they get to the other side regardless of the sins they commit in this world does not equip people to deal with the real challenges of life here. If drugs, alcohol, and guns are readily available and people fall into despair, they will resort to taking their own life because they cannot cope with it. This is especially true of a society where materialism is considered the highest form of achievement in life. In the absence of spirituality that provides hope for the future, people are left extremely vulnerable and, therefore, prone to suicide as the US researchers have found.