Why you should care
Because millions in the world’s richest country still live on less than $4 a day.
These days I find myself wondering whether the United States is still a first world country.
It’s not just our president. It’s true, though, that his behavior maps so neatly onto the Tin-Pot Dictators Handbook that I sometimes imagine he actually reads. So far this week, he’s called disagreement “treason,” openly wished for a government shutdown and threatened us with a military parade.
I’m not talking about Congress either. It’s true, though, that I feel genuine surprise when it behaves like a legislature in an advanced democracy by, say, finding ways to keep the government running.
No, the main reason I’m questioning our first world status is this: If you look past the dog whistle and pony show of national politics (which gets harder to do every time you log onto Twitter), you’ll find millions of American citizens languishing in the stupidest kinds of suffering.
I don’t think that’s what Donald Trump had in mind when he called for making America great again.
I stole “stupid suffering” from the physician-humanitarian Paul Farmer, who’s written about “stupid deaths,” the kind that are preventable but happen anyway. An infection turned septic for want of a $2 antibiotic, say. Farmer got the concept of stupid deaths from Haitians, with whom he worked for many years.
So it goes in the United States too. There’s stupid suffering from sea to shining sea.
“Extreme poverty,” sometimes called “absolute poverty,” is a technical term, but what it means in practice is florid. It’s not having enough to feed your kid, let alone yourself. It’s getting hookworm because the state won’t take responsibility for sewage lines, and you can’t afford a private septic system. It’s going to the emergency room so a professional can give you anesthetic and pull out your decayed tooth — because you’ve never been able to afford a dentist — and then not being able to get a minimum-wage service job because the boss worries your toothless mug and rotten breath will put customers off.
All of this is happening in what for now remains the richest and most powerful country in the world. We’ve always talked big about life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, but millions of us are living in squalor.
How many? The U.S. Census Bureau reported in September that 40 million Americans, or about 1 in 8, live below the poverty threshold. Imagine paying for rent, utilities and acetaminophen for when the kids run a fever on $24,339 a year, the official poverty line for a family of two adults and two children. Then try to fathom this: About 5.3 million Americans live in absolute poverty, which in the U.S. is less than $4 a day. That is a whopping $1,460 per year. It is a reliable indicator that you literally have no pot to piss in.
The absolute poverty estimate comes from Angus Deaton, a political economist who won the Nobel Prize in 2015 for his work on poverty and welfare. Last month in an op-ed, he noted that there are about as many officially destitute people in America as there are in Senegal. Deaton argued that Americans have got to stop thinking that extreme poverty is some other country’s problem. It’s ours too, and we have a duty to remedy it.
Alas, I don’t think that’s what Donald Trump had in mind when he called for making America great again.
No doubt reducing poverty can be a big, complex problem — and the improving economy has brought poverty numbers down slightly in recent years. And, yes, as some people like to say, the poor shall always be with us. Fine.
But the indignity is that the United States isn’t even pretending to attack poverty, in either its extreme or garden-variety versions. Neither is it addressing poverty’s cousin, economic inequality. Instead, policymakers are going in the opposite direction, shredding what remains of the social safety net.
Start with last year’s tax overhaul, which delivers $1.5 trillion in tax cuts — with a disproportionate share to the super-rich. This year, for instance, a household in the middle quintile of income will save about $930 on its tax bill, which sounds nice enough until you learn that households in the top 0.1 percent will save $193,000. That’s not a job-creating stimulus. It’s hush money.
Meanwhile, slashing the safety net is ingrained Republican behavior, some reflex or twitch they can’t shake. Governors are trying to add work requirements to Medicaid. Paul Ryan is still worried about poor people treating safety nets like hammocks. Ryan’s fellow Wisconsinite, Gov. Scott Walker, keeps talking about turning the safety net into a trampoline. And it’s a fair question: Which would you prefer in your backyard, a hammock or a trampoline?
Sorry, I got distracted.
On Monday I spoke with Philip Alston, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights. He toured the U.S. in December and found all sorts of sadnesses and horrors, some of which I’ve mentioned above. Alston will present his official report at the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva in June, at which point the United States will have an opportunity to respond. It should be a doozy.
“If the capitalist system is going to work,” Alston argues, “there needs to be a functioning welfare state” — for those who slip, and those who didn’t start out so high to begin with, and those who simply can’t keep up.
Fair shakes, equal opportunity, compassion: These are nowhere in the Tin-Pot Dictators Handbook. I hear it’s got a whole chapter, though, on military parades.